Evidence of Impact
Evidence about the impact of patient-cen-teredness depends upon carefully defining the intervention. Proclaiming patient-cen-teredness “the blockbuster drug of the century” is catchy, but the reality is more complex.
Patient-centered communication can lead to improved knowledge, treatment adherence and self-care, all connected to improved outcomes.4 Similarly, activated patients appear to have better health behaviors, outcomes and satisfaction,5 and also fewer rehospitalizations6 and less spending.7 In addition, patients allowed to access their doctor’s notes reported a greater sense of control and being more likely to take prescribed medications.8
Shared decision-making, meanwhile, has been linked to fewer hospital admissions and surgeries for preference-sensitive conditions.9 However, one study of inpatients participating in care decisions found longer stays and higher costs,10 while a separate evidence review of shared decision-making cautioned that sweeping conclusions about reducing overtreatment and cost are unjustified.11
Consumerism is also no cure-all. Health plan members with a chronic condition were more likely to report delaying or forgoing care because of cost when enrolled in an HDHP than when in traditional health insurance. Skipped services ranged from a sleep study to an MRI for melanoma.12 Separately, California HDHP enrollees did no better in shopping for care than non-HDHP enrollees, possibly because they lacked needed information.13
Growing Policy Support
Efforts to make patient-centeredness more pervasive are proceeding rapidly. That’s due partly to high hopes for clinical and economic benefit, partly to patient activism and partly to the boom in online health information and apps. A greater emphasis on incentives and transparency can be seen in multi-stakeholder collaborations, such as the 2013 IOM effort, and from formal requirements in the public and private sectors.
Accountable care organizations in the Medicare Shared Savings Program, for instance, must demonstrate patient-centeredness in governance (e.g., a patient representative on their board); at the clinical level (e.g., evidence-based medicine with a patient-centric focus); and in the individual patient-clinician interaction (e.g., patients’ active participation in medical decisions). Progress in meeting goals is publicly reported. Some private payers have similar requirements.
Turning Intent Into Implementation
Despite the movement toward shared power and responsibility, the gap between intent and implementation remains large. Patient-centered care represents a new paradigm more than a new pill. Emerging care delivery models demand that individuals actively manage their health and health care and that providers and purchasers help them do so. Both sides are still adjusting.
The word, “doctor” derives from the Latin “to teach,” and the clinical encounter continues to resemble lecture more than dialogue. Even well-educated individuals “feel compelled to…defer to physicians” rather than risk being labeled a “difficult patient.”14 Physicians, for their part, fear unreasonable patient demands and unrestrained mono-logues. Patients and doctors alike are unsure how to discuss economic concerns or how to use health information technology for effective collaboration. One suggestion is distributing formal “rules of engagement” that explicitly set out respective responsibilities.15
Unsurprisingly, uncertainty reigns. When a health plan gives members electronic tools to manage their health and health care, is it fostering patient-centeredness or meddling in medicine? Is using behavioral economics to promote healthy behaviors or help consumers save money meritorious or manipulative? Whether ostensibly patient-centered activities bring bravos or brew a backlash remains to be seen.
Advances in online health information pose an additional challenge. Individuals can go outside traditional channels for tracking vital signs, sophisticated diagnostic and treatment algorithms, and communities of patients and doctors to help interpret the results. In theory, patient-generated data should interface seamlessly with information from health plans, providers and others. The next round of federal meaningful use regulations for electronic health records is expected to address patient-generated data, but a smooth-functioning electronic partnership remains years away.
True patient-centeredness must go beyond increased empathy, better customer service or hiring a few health coaches. Making patient-centeredness a central element of care demands a cultural shift among payers, providers and patients alike. It means developing new structures and processes, but also new roles, responsibilities and expectations. As with any paradigm shift, difficulties, disruption and discomfort will inevitably ensue.
We are, after all, upsetting deeply es-tablished practices that affect patient lives, medical tradition and one-sixth of the U.S. economy. Though there will be criticisms and course changes, the journey to a more patient-centered health care system nonetheless promises extraordinary clinical, economic and ethical gains.