Realigning Healthcare: Putting Patients Back at the Center

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By Jandel Allen-Davis, MD

Everyone is in search of the secret sauce for patient experience. As we all know, the state of patient satisfaction today is grim. According to a recent study, 81% of consumers are dissatisfied with their healthcare experience. They say they don’t think providers take the time to understand their needs and that they lack empathy. Another study shows that patients feel the process is incredibly difficult to navigate – from access to their records, to cost transparency, to scheduling.

How did we get here? When exactly did we get to the point where patient experience doesn’t even make the top five list of concerns for hospital CEOs? Where people would rather walk out on an appointment than wait for a late physician? 

My observation is that healthcare leaders are often too removed from patient treatment. Many have never stepped foot in an exam room or actually treated a patient. In fact, only five percent of hospitals in the U.S. are led by someone with physician experience. 

While I am a former physician and the president and CEO of Craig Hospital, a specialty rehabilitation hospital that treats people who have sustained spinal cord and/or brain injury, I’m not necessarily saying that patient experience can only be achieved by having a physician in a leadership role. But healthcare leaders need to think like physicians, nurses and therapists – and go back to thinking about patients first. 

While Craig has a specific focus, we perform many of the same functions that acute care hospitals do. It’s part of our culture – we call it The Craig Recipe – to put our patients and their families at the very center of our approach to care. It works for us. Our outcomes are among some of the best in our specialty. While some of the things we do here are unique to our specialty, many aspects of our approach can easily be implemented in any type of healthcare setting. 

  1. Empower patients to fully participate in their care. Treating patients is not something we should do TO them; it’s something we should do WITH them. Enlisting patients to be intimately involved in the decisions around their care and take ownership of their treatment plan leads to improved outcomes because they feel a sense of responsibility. To do this, we must allow practitioners the time and space to involve patients in their own plans. 
  2. Foster an environment of collaboration. This is more prevalent in acute care hospitals where a number of specialists are available to consult and help treat patients, but even family care physicians can benefit from this approach. By bringing healthcare professionals together as part of a collaborative, multidisciplinary team, patients receive better, streamlined care and, thus, a better experience. 
  3. Create opportunities for peer support. Mental health is as important as physical health when you are treating someone with a diagnosis – no matter how severe. Where appropriate, creating an opportunity for patients facing similar challenges and diagnoses to come together only helps patients further progress and take ownership of their care. 
  4. Promote the mindset of people over patients. From the boardroom to the front desk staff, aim to infuse a sense of joy, commitment and focus to the work. It takes everyone – from the top down – to really SEE patients as people and remember they are treating a person, not a disease. Diane Reinhard, VP of Patient Care and a former longtime nurse at Craig, says it best: “Every patient we see has a unique relationship and experience with their injury [or diagnosis]. We need to understand that experience before we can even begin to treat that patient.” 
  5. Always be asking “What if?” And when asking that question, ask it from the patient’s perspective. What if we added online scheduling? What if we scheduled more time in our day for follow-ups? What if we expanded appointment times by five minutes? What if, what if, what if… Pro tip: ask your nursing staff about their “What ifs” – I bet they have some good ones. Then do what you can to answer them. 

Finally, and this should go without saying, we need to start making sure our staff are recognized for their efforts, given ample time to recharge and care for themselves, and feel valued as part of the team. This is more important now than possibly ever in our lifetime. The healthcare world has been under tremendous strain throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and our doctors, nurses and other staff will need to be recognized and supported. The people interacting with patients day to day, moment to moment are the people upon whom patient experience is built. Ensure they are well cared for, and your patients will feel cared for as well. 

Jandel Allen-Davis, MD is President and CEO of Craig Hospital.

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