The US healthcare system is an underperformer (highest healthcare spending for the lowest health system performance) compared to the other ten economically advantaged countries primarily due to differences in access, administrative inefficiency, disparities in healthcare delivery, and also due to the illogical underinvestment in primary care. Despite evidence by the Dartmouth Atlas of Health that the regions in which a higher percentage of Medicare beneficiaries receive majority of their care from a primary care physician lends to overall lower costs, higher quality of care, and lower rates of avoidable hospitalizations, the US continues to underinvest in primary care relative to other nations. Because of perverse incentives and overall fragmentation that is rampant in American healthcare, conscious and deliberate effort is needed to keep primary care at the forefront of clinical practice and population health improvement, including:
- Implementation of quality improvement practices that have a theoretical basis
According to Harvard Medical School’s Center for Primary Care established in 2011, there are five components necessary in improving primary care including evidence-based change concepts and tools, fostering strong relationships within and across practices, simple systems for reflection and feedback, structured time for team discussion and planning, and regular and meaningful engagement of leaders. The general theme is that quality improvement processes that have been validated (e.g. PDSA cycle) and implementation of driver diagrams that break up larger processes into smaller chunks/concepts have value and are worth the time to problem solve.
- Prioritizing patient-centered care
Care should be collaborative with patients’ preferences and values in the context of their socioeconomic conditions being respected. If there is less information asymmetry in clinical practice, then patients can be more active participants in their healthcare. Overall quality would improve with cost savings, as patient engagement research has demonstrated. Truly understanding a patient’s capacity and health literacy will improve a primary care physician’s ability to be effective in delivering patient-centric care.
- Payer reimbursement for provider innovation in preventive and multidisciplinary care
Primary care prioritization with the US healthcare system depends on heavy investment from payers because of the nature of reimbursement for clinicians’ time and services. In addition to a value-based compensation model that payers like Blue Cross Blue Shield reward providers with, more creative and interdisciplinary measures could be more payer driven. Humana’s Bold Goal program is a partnership between an influential payer and San Antonio Health Advisory board to partner with HEB grocery stores, community clinicians, and the YMCA to increase patients with diabetes’ better nutritional understanding of their choices. Because of the cost savings involved with more investment in primary care, it would make sense that payers would be incentivized towards this trend.
- Leveraging of non-clinical members of a team to deliver comprehensive, value-based care
Substantial evidence suggests that patients do not receive all of the preventive and chronic disease care that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advises on the basis of its best evidence because clinicians simply don’t have the time. Oak Street Health is a Chicago based network of value-based primary care centers that developed a clinical informatics specialist program 2014 where technical scribes were able to provide evidence-based recommendations and data support which resulted in improved effectiveness metrics, overall operational efficiency, and physician joy of practice.
Investment in primary care is necessary for the US healthcare system to have improved outcomes. Efforts at the community level, reinforced by theoretical models and financially backed by payers, are necessary in making changes that can yield significant population health improvements.
Based on the NEJM Catalyst survey regarding the differences between initiating and maintaining behavior change, in-person social support (followed by virtual social support) ranked the highest in sustaining long-term behavioral changes. Members of the council who participated in the survey believed that continued and consistent contact with patients influenced sustainable changes. The combination of human interaction plus digital tools reinforcing the relationship appear to be the best strategy. Even though there has been a gradual shift away from the fee-for-service culture, it still seems impractical for physicians to invest even more time into patient engagement given current constraints of the healthcare system (e.g. clinicians rarely have enough time to get through all the evidence based teaching necessary let alone focus on other factors seemingly non-clinical). Clinicians often give up motivating and influencing their patients, especially after they see marginal gains (or lack thereof) over the course of several years with patients who have chronic illnesses. You have burned out and cynical clinicians on one hand and patients who love inertia on the other. The irony is that if clinicians were to spend more time towards patient engagement, then there would be more impetus for patients to self-manage and be more accountable in their care and outcomes. Research has demonstrated that patient engagement leads to better health outcomes and reduces overall costs. Ultimately, patients being active participants in their healthcare leads to sustainable, long-term behavioral changes. In order to practice medicine effectively, efficiently, and to allow patients to extract the most out of the healthcare services they receive, clinicians should make attempts at patient engagement in a more deliberate manner with different strategies:
- Model after other human service businesses
One of the reasons that luxury car dealerships, financial planners, and boutique firms across a range of industries are so effective with their clientele is due to their shameless persistence in engaging with their customers. They seem to be very regimented in their follow-up without it appearing overly contrived. What if clinicians could adopt that kind of style with their patients? A combination of phone calls and digital contact seems appropriate – even leaving a voicemail in the evening as follows could signal enough persistence: “I sent you an email asking you if you’ve ever been tested for Thalassemia about a week ago– I think you are iron deficient for other reasons, but I want to make sure we’re covering all our bases for your condition. If I don’t hear from you this week, I’ll be discussing this with you at your next appointment in 2 weeks.”
- Blend a style between a motivational coach and psychologist
Motivational coaches who are very effective typically try to leverage emotional vulnerabilities and emotional language in very explicit ways to enforce change. Psychologists tend to non-judgmentally allow clients to form conclusions by themselves. Clinicians are often balancing these two approaches to avoid both paternalism as well as the snail-paced results of motivational interviewing. Language could be blended, with elements of idealism and also allowing for patient autonomy: “The pain of discipline is nothing compared to the pain of regret. You’ve recently had a lapse, but if you stick with the diet that you initially were so good with, what do you think it will do for your diabetes? Can you imagine what life will be like?”
Clinicians are never at risk of overinvesting in communication skills, as this is necessary to strike the right balance in influencing patients over the long-run. They would benefit from practices and processes in other industries where contact is consistent and maintained over a continuum with the assistance of digital technologies.
Evidence-based medicine (EBM), a movement that emerged roughly 30 years ago, advocates for the use of current best evidence from high quality research studies in healthcare decision making. This logical and straightforward way of delivering healthcare often fails in modern day practice. One simple reason that clinicians cannot execute point of care decision making with EBM is due to the overwhelming volume of scientific evidence that is ever changing and available within severe time constraints. A more pervasive reason is found in the way clinicians practice and incorporate knowledge into their daily work – they tend to follow what ethnographers Gabbay and Le May have coined as mindlines: collectively reinforced, iterative, internalized, and tacit guidelines. Clinicians’ practice is primarily influenced by trusted colleagues, mediated by cultural and organizational features of their practices, and is constantly refined as knowledge-in-practice-in-context.
Through my own wandering through various clinical settings, I have often heard phrases from respected clinicians including “there is evidence…and then there is actual practice.” The five part concept of EBM appears intuitively important in a science-based profession – define the problem, search for sources of information, critically evaluate that information, apply the information to the patient encounter, and evaluate the efficacy of the application of that information for that specific patient. It seems that an exciting opportunity would be data analytics enhanced by artificial intelligence that could search high volume clinical research and identify patient-matching criteria in order to assist clinician judgment on relevant treatment protocols.
How much of this is naïve rationalism? Upon evaluating a typical clinical scenario, what I used to think was a clear set of facts in a one-dimensional reality is now more like an interaction of temporary realities of patients, clinicians, researchers, and guideline/policy makers. Mindlines are therefore:
- More than intuition.
Mindlines that clinicians abide by undergo a validation process despite being mainly tacit. They are built off of shared sense-making in the local settings of patient care, which leads to coherence and negotiation with real-time environmental influences. They provide for more accuracy than the reductionist tools and beliefs of EBM.
- More patient centered.
Mindlines allow for incorporation of valid knowledge to occur from the patient’s perspective, as opposed to the paternalistic model of clinician knowing all and only being able to derive more information from EBM.
- Meaningful and effective.
Mindlines are not very far off from the way typical high performers solve problems – they consciously and unconsciously adjust their frameworks through contextual experience, colleagues, and the physical world. EBM can negotiate with these frameworks, but likely can never replace them.
The paradigm of mindlines offers insight into the way clinicians practice and how western medicine operationally works in an environment with varying expectations from the patient and the overall industry where innovative work is being attempted. The secular trend for the future hopefully will be the risk-adjusted incorporation of EBM with assistance from artificial intelligence into the tacit world of clinical medicine.
Patient engagement is controversial for many physicians because it interferes with the traditional values that arise from the several hundred-year old guild of medicine. Per the NEJM Catalyst Insights Council, patient engagement is characterized as patients interested in participating in choices about their health care, taking ownership of those choices, and having an active role in improving their outcomes. Given the current epidemiology of chronic diseases, it is not surprising that many patients have low levels of engagement as well as health literacy. As someone who is preoccupied with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, it is difficult for me to view any problem solving from the patient’s lens; yet, I know through the literature and intuitively that how patients feel impacts their outcomes. The following are a few of the things I have learned and will work on as I improve my ability to deliver care:
- Time = effectiveness Opinions of clinicians and leaders in patient care have determined that increased patient time with a health care team lends to increased engagement. A basic concept in human dynamics is that the mere exposure to someone over time is enough to start an unlikely relationship. Tack onto that high quality communication and understanding nuances of healthcare literacy, and you have a more engaged patient. In modern medicine, this would be accomplished through a multidisciplinary team effort. This task is challenging given the constraints of our current healthcare system. Could I increase time with patients through mobile technology? If there was an automated way for me or another care team provider to connect with patients via text or a quick phone call at specific intervals, I would be able to increase exposure and augment time.
- Shared decision making is key Another finding of the NEJM Catalyst is that shared decision making is one of the most effective strategies in improving engagement. We learn about this academically through the interpretative model (as opposed to paternalistic, etc.) of provider-patient relations; but this is also just common sense. I like to think this gives patients a sense of control, a sense of choice in a matter, where frankly, a lot make be out of your control. We are also better able to accept the consequences of the decisions we make, rather than the ones that are placed upon us. One of the reasons that UNICEF has been effective in helping children around the world is from the core guiding principle that children inherently have rights. American political views are reflected in the current model of access, but I would like to practice medicine with the belief that patients have inherent rights. It is a slippery slope because patients’ actions can be counterproductive to their health – but my preference is still to protect patient autonomy.
- Technology alone cannot solve the problem The concept of remote monitoring with wireless devices doesn’t appear to improve chronic disease management or outcomes. Technology alone cannot solve a dilemma in a people’s “business”. I would opt to use adaptive technologies that improve my relationship and sense of connectedness to the patient over technology that would offer mostly education or content to the patient. The idea of people taking ownership for a difficult problem is non-trivial. It requires motivation at a level that is primarily internal. How do you access that in people? In the self-help world, the most effective motivational coaches tend to elicit a hyper-emotional state in people along with placing a high premium on discipline. I think it’s logical to work on building a relationship, connecting, allowing a safe space for vulnerability, and witnessing the struggle to achieve begin from that foundation. While patient engagement is primarily a patient responsibility, I think providers have a responsibility to elicit patient activation as this directly affects outcomes.
- Design-thinking can help When Indra Nooyi became the CEO of Pepsi, one of her top priorities was to explore her staff’s beliefs on the concept of design. She asked business executives to take photographs of anything that they believed constituted design. After such an abstract request, she noticed that not only did people not care to complete the assignment, that some had even hired professional photographers to complete the task. My interpretation of this story is that she believes that there is an artistic aspect in the most unsuspecting of transactions. According to IDEO, human-centered-design is about building a deep empathy with the people you are designing for. In the process of being inspired, ideating, and implementing, a design researcher explores the texture and what matters most to a person before execution of a solution. How is this any different from delivering empathetic, tailored care to a patient? What we do well in medicine, some of the time, is already done at a higher level of sophistication in the real world outside of our clinics and hospitals. While design-centric thinking may lead to innovations in healthcare, for the provider I think the greatest advantage is that you amplify the relationship you have with the patient and increase overall engagement.
Whether it’s the creation of something that didn’t exist before or making decisions that are influenced by intuition, everyone is at one level involved in artwork. Improving patient engagement particularly with design-centric thinking would bring more value and meaning to the art of medicine, a skill I look forward to building throughout my career.
Whether patients are leaving the emergency department or being released from an extensive hospitalization, they need discharge instructions in order to solve their initial problem, better self-manage, and coordinate the appropriate follow-up. These instructions are typically written and are also articulated to the patient. We know that due to varying levels of health literacy, or the degree to which individuals have the capacity to process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions , a patient is especially vulnerable during the process of discharge in terms of overall understanding and appropriate follow through. Can technology empower patients operating from a position of weakness in this transition?
- According to the 2013 study entitled Information Technology Improves Emergency Department Patient Discharge Instructions Completeness and Performance on a National Quality Measure, researchers were able to show that electronic discharge instructions were more complete than paper-based information. The electronic discharge instructions had 97.3% compliance to a CMS quality measure while the paper-based discharge instructions were at 46.7%. This compliance is more than doubled with electronic discharge documentation (relative risk 2.09, 95%CI 1.75-2.48) ; however, there were no statistically significant differences in documentation of patient care instructions nor diagnosis between paper-based and electronic formats.
- In a 2015 study entitled Readability of patient discharge instructions with and without the use of electronically available disease-specific templates, patient readability of a web based discharge module, which has diagnosis-specific templated discharge instructions, was assessed. Patients had better readability with electronic templated discharge instructions than those that were clinician-generated (p< .001). Furthermore, the primary reason doctors created discharge instructions by themselves was due to lack of disease specific template availability.
The most exciting time in medicine is now, where the application of information technology during vulnerable transitions can provide a patient more complete information that he/she can actually act upon. Taken together, these studies suggest enhancement of both comprehensiveness and comprehension; the former very important for the primary care physician who will assume care of this patient status post hospitalization and the latter important for the patient’s overall health literacy necessary for improvement. The next logical extension is to have web based applications assist a patient in the transition from the hospital to the outpatient setting, something that innovative companies like Wellpepper are doing.
- Nielsen-Bohlman, L.; Panzer, AM.; Kindig, DA. Health literacy: A prescription to end confusion. National Academies Press; Washington, DC: 2004.
- Bell EJ et al. Information Technology Improves Emergency Department Patient Discharge Instructions Completeness and Performance on a National Quality Measure: A Quasi-Experimental Study. Appl Clin Inform. 2013; 4(4): 499–514.
- Mueller SK et al. Readability of patient discharge instructions with and without the use of electronically available disease-specific templates. J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2015; 22(4): 857-63.
Physicians typically endure years of training by being put in a pressure cooker with no safety valve. They persist through sheer brute force and discipline within a highly regulated, high barrier to entry industry. The high stakes culture of medicine often lends to emotional immaturity and an inability to relate to most of the world around. Ironic and sad, given that one of the core principles in patient care is to demonstrate empathy towards the human condition. The information asymmetry that exists between patient and provider further puts more onus on the physician to have character and compassion. In addition to being out of touch with reality, physicians also grapple with the changing times. Technological advancements and accessibility of information through technology has influenced the way physicians learn and practice medicine. Physicians who are uncomfortable with technology tend to find it harder to keep up with the latest innovations and research that affects patient care.
I chose to do a rotation at a digital health startup because of the fear of being disconnected and clueless. Plus there are a few other beliefs of mine that I wanted to more fully explore during my time at Wellpepper:
- Understanding patients in the aggregate is important. Understanding what patients want, feel, and expect is not just an interesting data set, but is essential for me in providing optimal care. While a physician still deals with a patient one on one and the experience is influenced by patient characteristics, knowing the context in where the patient is coming from provides the best chance for an optimal encounter.
- Technology that enhances the patient-physician relationship is a top priority. The physicians I have respected the most have tier 1 communication skills and relationships with their patients. A good relationship can literally bend the physics of the situation (e.g. that’s why doctors who have good bedside manner don’t get sued).
- Technology that promotes value based care is the current landscape. It is no longer around the corner. Every stakeholder in healthcare is interested in improvement of care from an outcomes and cost perspective. Current practices in medicine are rapidly adapting in order to keep up.
- Betting against yourself is a great strategy for growth. Based on the culture of medicine, it has always been more important for me to implement care that is standardized and in service of saving a patient’s life rather than considering how he/she feels. Something as simple as a patient having to give five histories within the same hospital admission is normal to me and also has value due to the difficulties in eliciting accurate information. But what if I considered that a patient doesn’t want to hear the same question repeatedly and that ultimately effects his/her perception of care? What if their lives were saved but they didn’t believe that anyone truly cared for them in the hospitalization? Would this be a meaningful experience, or a shallow one sided win? Challenging the way I think, the way I was indoctrinated into thinking and behaving, is something I look forward to in this process.
In summary, I chose to do a rotation at Wellpepper because I have a growth mindset. I want to consciously be a part of the most exciting time in medicine, where the hard work of innovative and creative minds improve patient lives.