Encouraging Communications About Patients’ Goals

I attended a great event yesterday where experts discussed how to improve healthcare quality and safety by increasing patients’ involvement in making healthcare decisions.

This seminar, “Patient-Centeredness and Patient Safety: How Are They Interconnected,” was organized by the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center and sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society and CRICO/RMFDon Berwick (President & CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) was the main speaker followed by a panel consisting of two patient safety leaders from local hospitals and a patient involved with promoting patient engagement in quality improvement.

To start the event, Dr. Berwick discussed how his thinking about healthcare quality had evolved over several decades, and his increasing belief in the importance of patient involvement. He discussed his Health Affairs article on Patient-Centered care, and summarized his current thinking about how to design patient-centered care in 8 bullets:

  1. Place the patient at the center
  2. Individualize
  3. Welcome family and loved ones
  4. Maximize health influences within care
  5. Maximize health influences outside of care
  6. Rely on sophisticated, disciplined evidence
  7. Use all relevant capabilities – waste nothing
  8. Connect helping influences with each other

Communications Is Crucial for Achieving Patient-Centerdness and Goal Sharing
The essence of the panel’s discussion was about how to improve communications among patients and their clinicians so that each others’ goals were shared and understood.  One example raised by a panelist was initiatives to prevent patients from falling in the hospital.  Patients may see nurses being in bathrooms with them as intrusive or uncomfortable, but discussing their shared goal of not having patients fall and hurt themselves shifts the context of the nurse’s action and enables it to be embraced by the patient rather than resisted.

From the patient’s perspective too often clinicians may have their own ideas about what the goals of the treatment should be, but without understanding the patient’s life interests and goals the two may be disconnected.  For example, clinicians often ask patients what they do for work to understand if the treatment or the outcomes will be compatible with their jobs, but often patient’s happiness or life fulfillment is related to something outside of work, such as playing the piano, playing with grandchildren, rollerblading, hiking with their dogs in the mountains, or hang-gliding.  Treating a patient’s injury or illness so they can do (or be able to try to do) those activities may be very different than what would be indicated if the goal was to enable them to work in an office.

Creating Policies to Promote Communications and Goal Sharing
Dr. Berwick’s presentation also included a brief discussion of how evidence based medicine (EBM) can improve patient safety by avoiding unnecessary care and setting realistic expectations about the outcomes for chosen treatments.  This is captured in his 6th bullet above. One of the challenges in the current push towards more EBM – and comparative effectiveness research (CER) – is what to actually measure in this research. Combining the health system’s desire for optimal outcomes with patient-centeredness, (i.e., his 2nd bullet – “Individualize”), could be achieved by including the patient’s goals for their treatment as one of the outcomes measured in EBM and CER programs.

Benefits of Measuring Achievement of Patients’ Goals as an “Outcome”
Process measures, (such as percentage of patients who’ve received a recommended treatment), are usually easier to evaluate, but are really proxies for clinical outcomes.  Actual outcomes like mortality or hospitalization can be harder to evaluate, in part because of individual patient differences and thus the raw data needs to be risk adjusted. However, measuring achievement of the patient’s goals could be very important and valuable to add to these evaluations – and could be a rough way to inherently risk adjust the data, i.e. the “goals” of treating a broken hip may be different for a 50 year old person than someone who is 70.  The actual measurement of such goal achievement could be done based upon answering the question of “how well were the patient’s goals met?”  Clearly this would have to be quantified in some way – and perhaps that could be done by the patients themselves on an 11 point scale from 0-100%.

Not only would measuring this “patient goal achievement” outcome add a useful dimension to some research, but it would also put the question of “what are the patient’s goals?” right at the front of the patient-clinician conversation.  And in the context of health reform and system improvement, by using the dictum of, “we manage what we measure,” measuring how well delivery systems and clinicians are achieving patients’ goals could be an important force for transforming care delivery.

Bottom Line for Patients and Clinicians
The next time you’re a patient talking to a clinician, be sure to talk about your goals for treating whatever ailment caused you to see that clinician.  And clinicians need to tell their patients what goals they expect to achieve from the treatment they’re recommending.  This is the start of a conversation since the patient’s expectations may not be realistic – such as for a patient with a severe fracture who wants to run a marathon in three weeks.  But by understanding each others goals and expectations they can agree on what should be done and how to proceed.

Need for Continuity of Care and Primary Care Clinicians
Of course some patients may seek to “doctor shop” looking for a clinician who will promise to achieve their goals.  This can be good if the first clinician isn’t attuned to the patient’s wishes, but it can also be bad if the patient’s expectations are unrealistic.  That is why having a trusted relationship with a primary care clinician can be so important, since their PCC can help them evaluate and digest other clinicians’ recommendations.  Again, it comes down to ongoing and two-way communications to understand goals and jointly develop treatment plans and decisions.

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