The patient experience movement is one of astounding energy, driven in large part by the realization that fellow humans respond positively when empathy and partnership are at the forefront of care decisions. The majority of those employed in healthcare are not working tirelessly to manufacture a product; their purpose lies in improving the human condition. Sure, there are thousands of innovations marketed every day with the goal of providing solutions to our health problems, but it’s the human connection that has such a monumental impact on how patients respond to our efforts. Human connectedness builds trust, opens lines of communication and creates an environment capable of health and healing. While our hospitals and health systems have made significant gains, I must ask where independent medical practices stand in this storm of pressing innovation.
I consider my work with small medical practices a grassroots effort to inspire empathy as an office culture. How many providers or staff members have taken time to sit in the waiting room or exam room? I believe it’s imperative to consider what message we are sending through our actions and our environment. Are the chairs uncomfortable, the floor dirty, reading material outdated and torn? When the MA calls you back does she smile and call you by your preferred name? Do we have policies that build barriers instead of bridges between our patients and providers?
Today’s medical landscape is crowded with challenges related to payment models, quality metrics and frustrating non-compliance. How can we help patients who don’t appear to want to help themselves? In my experience, the answer lies in a culture of empathy. Understanding the broader scope of social health determinants and their impact on a patient’s ability to follow through can mean the difference in treating a patient with apathy versus compassion. Make no mistake; patients read body language, tone and other social cues while visiting their providers. These impact their decision-making and behavioral attitude towards where they will go to receive care. This, in turn may determine a patient’s follow through with filling prescriptions, imaging, labs or referrals to specialists.
While we have done extensive work in the hospital and outpatient setting related to patient experience. We also see that primary care clinics and specialty offices remain the frontline of a fragmented system in rural America. Visit on a typical business day and you’ll observe massive stacks of facsimiles, incessant phones ringing, paperwork shuffled and names being called. The medical assistants, schedulers and receptionists I work with admit they become incensed by the lack of understanding on behalf of the patient. They forget they are experts in their role and patients are navigating foreign territory, sometimes scared or too embarrassed to ask further questions. Add the ever evolving changes for the latest software update and every one is confused and less than patient.
Many small medical practices continue to work under fee-for-service payment models. Many I speak with are put off by the pressures to utilize EHRs and perceive value-based payment systems as another way for payers to gain control over their quest to do what is best for the individual patient. They feel many of the technology solutions are beyond their reach due to issues of interoperability and gaps in IT prowess and staffing.
While I have a healthy appreciation for the innovation entering the healthcare space, I would like to point out this is not an “all or nothing” ultimatum. My vision includes guiding small and mid-size practices to understand the value of adopting small changes to achieve empathy as an office culture. If we make a commitment to weave compassion and understanding into our communication, our policies and our daily decisions, we position ourselves to help patients in a way indifference cannot. Practices I speak with often feel discouraged by the barrage of high tech investments pitched to them as the sole pathway toward improving patient experience. No amount of technology can replace humanness. So while I dream of large-scale changes to the systems of heath care, I am encouraged by the efforts of independent practice managers working low-tech solutions to create a much needed culture of empathy.
Erin K. Brandt is a public health advocate, facilitator and passionate patient experience leader. Her start as a grassroots health educator working with inmates, the homeless and those suffering from addiction ignited a deep passion for facilitating change through the human connection. Erin currently works with organizations developing leadership pathways, coaching and supporting the patient experience movement. Along with her role as a Patient Experience and Care Advocate at Yuma Regional Medical Center, Erin teaches courses for Arizona Western College Community Health Worker program and designs custom training content for local businesses and healthcare practices.