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Doctors can help change patient experience

Like many physicians, I pursued a career in medicine with the goal of improving peoples’ lives. It wasn’t until I completed my residency and started practicing as a hospitalist in Atlanta that I realized developing relationships with patients and improving their collective experience is often placed on the back burner.

From paperwork to the everyday pressures of releasing and admitting new patients, it became clear that building a strong patient-doctor relationship was growing more and more elusive. In my 20 years in medicine, not much has changed. In fact, today’s physicians face even more challenges and pressures that diminish the opportunities to spend quality time with patients.

Those issues are clouding patient safety. According to a recent survey on workloads cited by Medpage Today and authored by Johns Hopkins University, 40 percent of hospitalists said their typical inpatient load exceeded safe levels at least once a month; 36 percent reported having an unsafe workload at least weekly. Those excessive workloads lead to inadequate time with patients, which spur unnecessary tests, procedures, consultations and serious errors.

While hospitals are implementing quality initiatives and using technology to restrict lapses, it’s safe to say the focus on patient experience still needs resuscitating.

Misalignment continuously plagues the relationship between physicians and patients. Traditionally, physicians are paid on a fee-for-service model, with their performance in the area of patient satisfaction having little to no influence. Now the trajectory of health care is beginning to move toward quality of care with initiatives like the HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) survey, giving patients more of a say. These survey results are publicly published, bringing more transparency and incentives for physicians to prioritize quality of care.

While feedback about the patient experience is important for hospitals and health care providers, patients should be a priority and included in the conversation about their care throughout hospital stays, not just at the very end. Moving toward a care-team model where hospitalists, nurses, primary care physicians and others work together and engage the patient throughout their stays can curb surprises, decrease chances of readmission and make any transition process seamless.

Additionally, it’s important to note any measure to further engage and satisfy patients should be monitored closely to determine its effectiveness. A number of hospitals implement processes with the right intentions, but those processes ultimately generate poor outcomes. For example, a hospital I once worked with instituted “stop lights” that would flash and blare when noise levels got past a certain point. However, this hospital, like most, was incredibly busy and the measure designed to keep noise levels down actually contributed to the problem.

Another more serious scenario is when physicians treat patients based on potential scoring in satisfaction surveys. Having what they’ll score in a satisfaction survey top of mind might make the decision between doing what’s popular with the patient and what’s best for the patient really challenging. Ultimately, satisfaction should never override quality of care.

There’s an art to balancing patient satisfaction. One thing in particular that gives Atlanta physicians an advantage is the number of health-care technology tools rooted and available here. Physicians in this area have greater access to innovations that aid in patient monitoring, communication and care coordination. Although Georgia, like many states, struggles with expanding its integrated health data delivery network known as a Health Information Exchange, the patient-focused technologies and services prevalent in the Atlanta market are moving the dial in the right direction.

The days when physicians could sit in a room with a patient for 30 to 45 minutes and develop a rapport with them has virtually disappeared, but some Atlanta companies find innovative ways to revive the patient experience. There’s a lot of hope for a more connected point-of-care treatment model that delivers a better collective patient experience and improved outcomes.

Dr. Steven Liu is founder and CMO of Atlanta-based Ingenious Med.

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