By Kathy Bloomgarden
April 2, 2018

I recently returned from another engaging Fortune Brainstorm Health conference. While every year there is a focus on how new technologies and data will change the future of health care, this year I was struck by a few sessions reminding us that there are some basics essential to our achieving better health outcomes.

At the start of the conference, Mark Bertolini, CEO and chairman of Aetna, said that we need to start by asking patients, “What is your [health] problem? … What is it about your health that gets in the way of life you want to lead?”

Care has to be personalized to each individual. Once that is accomplished, providers can meaningfully engage people. Underpinning all the new health care technology is human contact and listening, which is essential to the physician-patient experience.

But there exist some obstacles. Physicians are burdened by the many changes happening in medicine. Physicians don’t like the electronic medical records (EMR) system: They feel stressed by having to spend more time looking at computer screens, rather than patients, during appointments.

Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global and Brainstorm Health co-chair, said that data alone will not change behaviors. The other component that needs to be present in improving outcomes is, surprisingly, storytelling. When it comes to helping patients take better control of their health and make the necessary behavioral changes, collaboration, physician-patient communication, and exchange of experiences is just as important as data is.

Unfortunately, when we talk about health care, storytelling and the exchange of ideas are rarely front and center. It’s easy to see why—virtual operating rooms and 3-D printers that make aesthetic limbs have a much higher “wow” factor than the seemingly simple act of communication. Yet as we continually ramp up the use of technology in the health care system, there is an underlying risk of not getting the basics right.

Physicians are burned out by the backend processes they need to complete. Patients are frustrated by the short amount of time they get with their doctors. And administrators are trying to make sense of the wealth of data they have, which seems to be continual and boundless, while focusing on cutting costs. At a time when the buzz is all about technology in health care, are we slowly losing the very essence of the industry: the human connection?

As we consider the role of physicians, we have to leave them enough time to do what is most important to the success of health care: listen to patients. While technology and big data are undoubtedly the future of health care, we need to figure out how we can free up doctors to spend more time with patients, unlocking the power of storytelling and listening.

Here are my top four ideas for making that happen:

Build more platforms for communal collaboration

The famous quote, “If you build it, they will come,” rings true here. To exchange stories and information, we first need platforms for talking and listening. The success of sites like PatientsLikeMe has proved that when it comes to improving health care, online patient communities can play an important role. These communities help improve clinical trial participation through awareness, foster open research exchanges through questionnaires, and foster the sharing of data and advice through chat forums.

Employ new collaboration tools and technologies

The health care industry is notoriously known for its slow progress in adopting new technology tools. But this is no surprise: The end-to-end process of educating and training physicians is based on following standards and staying within the status quo.

To change the way health care professionals think about and approach challenges, we need to change the way they train and interact together. For example, we should introduce new technologies into the classroom, such as surgery simulators or virtual discussions with other students around the globe. Collaboration tools and technologies are nothing new, but, when applied in the health care setting, they could also inspire physicians and providers to interact differently with each other and with patients.

Make appointments more fruitful

According to a recent study by Medscape, the average amount of time physicians spend with their patients is 13–16 minutes. The majority of physicians think their visits with patients are too short to answer their questions and treat them effectively, and that they are increasingly spending more time on computer screens during patient encounters, according to a recent study by Athena Health.

Since these visits are so short, we can use technology to make them more productive. For example, technology can give doctors and patients access to patients’ health data before an appointment, so they can have more in-depth discussions in person.

Personalize communications through data

The use of technology and analytics can help bridge the gap between patients and physicians. For instance, doctors can send patients follow-up information based on their discussion during an appointment. Or doctors could provide patients with resources and tips to help them deal with personal health risks. This kind of data-driven information exchange helps patients feel that their personal needs are being met while taking some of the burden off their physicians.

According to David Agus, professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and a co-chair of Brainstorm Health, “The business of health is treating disease. We want to change that so the business of health is health.”

To get back to the core of the health care business, we must first get back to the core of what makes us connect as humans: talking and listening.

Kathy Bloomgarden is the CEO of Ruder Finn.

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