Giving Patients an Active Role in Their Healthcare: HBR

This article by Len Schlesinger and John Fox appeared in the Harvard Business Review on November 21, 2016.


As payment and care delivery models shift in the United States from episodic, fee-for-service care toward population health and value-based reimbursement, health care leaders are focused more than ever on patient engagement as a key to driving down costs and improving outcomes. And yet, as so many of us know who have attempted to manage our own care or tend to sick family members, the U.S. health care system rarely feels like it’s been set up to help us succeed.

What’s needed is a fundamental redesign of the patient’s role — from that of a passive recipient of care to an active participant charged with defined responsibilities, equipped to dispatch them, and accountable for the results. In other words, we need to view the patient’s role as a job and then design that job in such a way as to drive the best health outcomes possible.

The Patient’s “Burden of Treatment”

Patient advocates and others who have studied the U.S. health care system have catalogued the degree of “unpaid,” and unsupported, work patients take on in service of their own care. The average, low-risk patient must follow up on referrals to specialists, fill and manage medications, and comply with physical therapy and other regimes. With legacy, pre-internet software systems still the norm in most hospital environments, patients also become unpaid couriers, shuttling critical health data from one provider to the next.

According to a 2015 survey on the patient experience, nearly 30% of patients physically carry x-rays, test results, and other critical health data from one provider’s office to the next. And 55% say their medical history is missing or incomplete when they visit their doctor.

For patients who suffer from chronic or complex conditions, as a Mayo Clinic paper recently argued, the “burden of treatment” must be shouldered alongside the “burden of illness.” A 2012 study cited by the study’s authors estimated that the self-management of a chronic illness demands, on average, two hours of patient work each day — work that is often poorly supported, stressful, and frustrating in nature.

For all the articles advocating for “patient-centered care,” this is the change that we ultimately must be willing to make: Rather than having patients as passive recipients of care, they must be active producers of their care, in partnership and coordination with physicians and clinical staff. So what are the requirements for getting to that end state?

Account for Patient Work Across the Full Care Journey

First, we need to acknowledge and account for all the patient work that now goes unrecognized and unsupported. This means grappling with the complexity of tasks patients take on as they seek care across an ever-expanding number of settings — work that varies widely depending on acuity level, disease state, demographics, insurance type, socioeconomic conditions, and so on.

For years, hospitals and medical groups, looking to move the needle on patient satisfaction, have focused largely on managing and optimizing isolated episodes of care. CAHPS surveys, for example, which serve as the industry standard for measuring the patient experience, focus on patient satisfaction with individual encounters within a single institution.

But the way we access and experience care has changed. Where we used to have a lifelong relationship with a family doctor, we now switch doctors frequently due to scheduling issues, changes in insurance coverage, and other factors. We’re also more likely to seek care outside the walls of health systems or the boundaries of specific networks — whether it be through urgent care visits, virtual consults, or alternative therapies. And we know that much of what affects our health, for better or worse, happens between visits. Who is accountable for measuring the patient experience over time and across all of these disparate care settings?

As we shift toward population health, with provider reimbursements tied directly to improved outcomes, we need to move from managing episodes of care to managing the entire patient journey across the full ecosystem of care. The patient journey becomes the operational backdrop against which patients, physicians, and other staff and caregivers must play their respective parts.

Continue reading full article here.

Len Schlesinger is Baker Foundation Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He previously served as the 12th president of Babson College and the vice chairman and chief  operating officer Limited Brands (now L Brands). He is the coauthor of What Great Service Leaders Know and Do.

John Fox is executive director of content at athenahealth and editorial director of athenaInsight, a data-driven web magazine about healthcare. He is the author of The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.