Patient Engagement
Talk
What If Our Care Were Designed by Patients? (21:20)

With a theme called Physicians Leading | Leading Physicians, you need to talk about patients, says Steve Swensen. “I want to ask ourselves to imagine, what would it be like if our care were designed by patients? And if our leaders were selected by patients? And if our organizations were designed by patients?”

Swensen relates the story of a friend of his, who co-owns a twin-engine Aerostar plane, noting that this story helps keep him grounded on patient centeredness. Every time maintenance work is done on the plane, guess who is the first person to fly it? The mechanic. We can compare the mechanic’s perception of the work at hand and the responsibility to that of being a patient. “If we continually prompt ourselves to think about our care, our systems, our compensation systems, our leader selection process through the eyes of a mechanic who is about to fly in a plane that s/he is repairing, it changes the game.”

Five years ago, Swensen led a group of researchers at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in looking at learnings from the top leaders in the top organizations across the world. Over a 2-year period, they interviewed over two dozen successful leaders in some of the best organizations in the country, including Brent James and Gary Kaplan, and then spent time with the patients and families they served. From this, they came up with five high-impact behaviors that drove success for these organizations, and the best outcome safety service for their patients. The number one behavior was discovered to be “person-centered” in word and deed. And, they took special care to talk about patients as people, not patients, because the patients told them not to. “We’re people, we’re humans,” they said.

A distillate of this research came down to three wishes of a patient about to undergo care:

Wish 1: Care about me.
Two years ago, Swensen worked with 50 leaders of a large health system, and the leader of that group shared with those 50 leaders a story about her son who had a chronic illness and had to undergo a major elective transplant surgery for a failed kidney. The procedure went fine — there were no medication errors, no readmissions, no infections. But the words she used to describe the experience at her own hospital were: There was no love in the system. So if the first wish of a patient is “care about me”, not only did we miss the wish, says Swensen, but we also put that patient at risk. “Because care without love is at-risk care,” he says, when there are higher rates of safety issues, of patient experience issues, of outcomes, and higher costs.

What’s the best way to heal a wound? Kindness and empathy. The literature is replete with good science showing that wounds heal faster if patients experience kindness and empathy, Swensen adds. Kindness and empathy not only build trust and reduce anxiety, pain, and readmissions among patients, but — the beauty of it is, Swensen says — that it’s a virtuous cycle, because that kindness and empathy come right back to the health care professionals. Not only does they improve outcomes for patients, but they also reduce costs.

A third of prescriptions filled out in America are not filled by patients, the dominant reason being a lack of trust and empathy between patient and provider. But if that trust and empathetic relationship exists, patients are more likely to take their medications and do what is in their own best interest — making population costs go down.

You can’t give what you don’t have, Swensen adds. If we don’t have empathy, if we’re emotionally exhausted or socially isolated, our patients suffer. Even if we can get the mechanic parts right, it doesn’t mean much if we can’t get the relationship part right.

Wish 2: Care for each other.
The second wish Swensen’s research team found was that it was important that care be mutual. Patients understood that if health care professionals care for one another — doctors, nurses, social workers, managers, housekeepers — that they would get better care, have a better experience, and have better outcomes.

Five years ago, Swensen had a debate with Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry Wehmiller Companies, about how in health care, the needs of the patient come first. Chapman’s contention was that the well-being of team members is paramount, and if they’re healthy, the team works well, therefore ensuring the patients receive good care. Neither of them were right, necessarily, Swensen says, but he learned a lot. When Chapman took over as CEO in 1975, they had one company and were financially insecure; today they have 80 manufacturing companies across the planet, with an annual revenue stream of $2.4 billion.

“He looks at his organization as an opportunity to enrich lives,” Swensen says. Chapman says that the machine we build is simply an economic engine to enrich lives. His team of 11,000 employees is predominantly blue collar and unionized, and Chapman instituted rules such as removing time clocks for blue collar employees, since executives didn’t have them. In 2008, during the recession, they should have laid off thousands of team members, but instead, he said, “Our goal is to not lay anyone off. We’ll defer payments on retirement plans, we’ll have furloughs, we’ll take pay cuts.” After the recession, loyalty was sky high. And after being surveyed, 79% of team members said that the leaders of the organization cared for them — which is basically the inverse of most health care organizations in this country. This buys us better patient outcomes, better patient safety, at lower costs.

Swensen offers the example of a member of the Intermountain cleaning staff called Christina. She cleans toilets and changes soiled sheets. But, she sees her job not as a cleaning person, but as a caregiver. Recently, she came into a room and saw a patient who was frustrated in trying to see her father on a different floor. Christina ran up to the floor where the patient’s father was and handed him the phone — and the patient told him that she loved him. A half hour later, the patient’s father died. Christina, having lost her own father recently, embraced the patient who’d just lost hers.

Swensen’s uncle taught him: the best way to succeed is to help someone else succeed.

Wish 3: Put my interests first.
Swensen says he used to look at a glass half full. Now, he sees it as having more opportunity to get the job done. “That’s our health care system,” he says. “Our health care system has 40% waste by the most conservative estimates, and the top three categories of waste we own: overtreatment, failures of care delivery, failures of care coordination.” So, he says, that is our opportunity to put patients’ interests first, adding that we have to be careful of financial incentives when we want to be patient centered.

“Not only is putting patients’ interest first in the patient’s best interest, but it’s in ours,” Swensen says. “If you look at drivers of burnout, one of the drivers is moral distress, and a values dissonance. So not only is it good for patients to put their interests first, it’s good for us.”

From the NEJM Catalyst event Physicians Leading | Leading Physicians at Intermountain Healthcare, July 12, 2017. This talk originally appeared in NEJM Catalyst on August 7, 2017.

More From Patient Engagement
Jethwani01_pullquote2 patient empowerment

Who Gives Us the Right to “Empower” Patients?

And if we are not truly empowering patients, what exactly should we be striving for?

Patients Welcome IV Self-Care; Physicians Hesitate

Parkland Hospital examines barriers to acceptance of a program that teaches uninsured patients to deliver IV antibiotics at home.

The Digital Experience Must Also Be a Human(e) Experience

The most humane experiences happen when we meet patients where they are by designing the types of touch points they want and need.

Hawaii Pacific Health Physician Checklist: Creating a Healing Experience

Transforming the Patient Experience Through the Power of Ritual

Ritual is in fact a primitive checklist: a series of steps that create safety and trust between client and caregiver.

Top Three Most Promising Trends to Capture the Patient Voice

Survey Snapshot: Many Different Channels to Hear the Patient Voice

Commentary from NEJM Catalyst Insights Council members on how to capture the patient voice and make hospital staff hear it.

Empowering Patients Empowers Providers

Why should it be surprising and novel that patient-reported outcomes have such power?

Patient-Reported Outcomes for Shared Decision-Making

Making Patients and Doctors Happier — The Potential of Patient-Reported Outcomes

PRO collection is not only feasible and good for clinical care, but it also may enhance physician satisfaction and prevent burnout.

Patient Voice Roundtable Group

Insights Roundtable Report: Measuring What Matters and Capturing the Patient Voice

From a roundtable discussion and NEJM Catalyst survey, a framework for defining the patient voice and integrating it into care delivery.

A Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) for Quality

A Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality: Making Its Voice Heard at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Though PFAC models abound, metrics on best practices are lacking. One prominent hospital may have found the answer: let those who are the experts at being patients and caregivers lead the way.

Digital Health: USC Virtual Care Clinic

Digital Technology to Engage Patients: Ensuring Access for All

To ensure that we engage the patient groups who have much to gain from the more flexible health care interactions that digital innovation can provide, we must consider issues of computer literacy, access, and trust.

Connect

A weekly email newsletter featuring the latest actionable ideas and practical innovations from NEJM Catalyst.

Learn More »

Topics

Patient-Centered Care

245 Articles

Engaging Stakeholders to Produce Sustainable Change…

How an initiative designed to improve patient outcomes and satisfaction while containing costs led to…

Patient Incentives

68 Articles

Online “Superusers” as Allies of the…

Three proposed steps for integrating peer-driven online health communities with traditional services to improve health…

Patient-Led Data Sharing — A New…

The pieces are in place for a truly disruptive shift in how patients can access…

Insights Council

Have a voice. Join other health care leaders effecting change, shaping tomorrow.

Apply Now