Patient Engagement Distracts the Health Care Field From Reform (Part 1 of 2)

One can derive a certain sense of entertainment, along with a discomfort comparable to the unending alarms one hears in the background of a hospital ward, when one sees an industry fumble over a critical task and seek desperately for a solution that takes the heat off of them while freeing them from the thoroughgoing cultural and organizational change that the crisis clearly calls for. If you haven’t figured out the issue I’m talking about yet, it’s the hot topic in health care circles these days: patient engagement.

Patient engagement is starkly counterposed to patient empowerment, which is the demand issued by the activists most engaged in health care these days. This article will look at the overlap and differences.

The Elusive Hunt for the Happy Patient
Doctors and administrators must be annoyed at having take time away from busy schedules to learn new bedside manners, but articles pour out on web sites almost daily telling them they need to do so. Typical titles are Social Media 101 For Healthcare CXOs and 5 Elements of a Successful Patient Engagement Strategy. A whole new job description has been even created: the patient experience officer, adding another expensive office to the hospital bureaucracy (with a concomitant rise in hospital costs, I’m sure).

I’ll double back later and admit that many of recommended strategies could help improve care. But an initial indulgence in cynicism is still justified.

Atul Gawande contributed to the fervor for treating patients as customers through his notorious ode to the Cheesecake Factory. The strengths and weaknesses of that comparison have been intelligently analyzed by numerous articles, such as ones in Forbes and KevinMD.

Another commentary shrewdly notes that clinicians themselves suppress patient engagement through problems ranging from lack of record sharing to opaque pricing.

One can sympathize with clinical administrators caught up in the rating frenzy that has overtaken everything we buy and every institution with which we interact. People seem to listen to other people’s rants over long waits or snippy receptionists when choosing which doctor to call (that is, people, lucky enough to have a choice of doctors–a topic beyond the scope of this article). The Department of Health and Human Services has legitimized the concern for patient ratings with its Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey, introduced in 2006. CMS uses a hospital’s score while determining its Medicare pay rate for inpatient care. (There’s help yet again for beleaguered administrators: Five Tips to Improve Your HCAHPS Scores).

OK, patient experience is important. I certainly couldn’t argue against empathy or compassion. One study found that communicating well with patients contributes more than other “quality measures” to reducing hospital readmissions. The critical issue of patient access to records will be addressed in my next section. More minor improvements to the patient experience can have ripple effects–for instance, moving them through the waiting room and examination faster reduces their risk of picking up infections. Even the snippy receptionist contributes to stress that’s bad for health, or discourages a patient from making an important follow-up visit.

But patient experience does not equal good care. As highlighted in an article in the Atlantic Magazine, patients are easily misled by superficial conveniences. Real improvement in care, the article says, comes from more nurses and a better working environment.

If people are dropping right and left from bugs picked up in restaurants (as they did in a number of Chipotle outlets), we wouldn’t be asking customers to rate the foam on their coffees or whether the waiters smiled at them. We’d be instituting a strong restaurant inspection regimen.

That’s the position of our hospitals and clinics. We have much worse things to worry about than the lengths of time spent in the waiting room. But if we want a focus on patients, there’s another way to do it that I’ll discuss in the next segment of the article.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space.

Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site ( and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

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