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Patient engagement and design in the art of 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.

Posted in: Behavior Change, Healthcare transformation, patient engagement

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