Patient Engagement, Partnerships and Puppies

Posted October 27, 2014 by Tom Dahlborg, MSM

Tom DahlborgI was recently invited to host the World Congress Patient Engagement Summit in Boston. The event promised to “leave behind theory and bring about actionable change with actionable solutions to engage patients and move the needle on clinical outcomes and community health.” And, it lived up to this billing.

I moderated the “Leverage Prevention Programs to Boost Wellness and the Bottom Line” panel discussion where Neal S. Sofian, MSPH, director of member engagement of Premera Blue Cross and Blue Shield, shared a powerful story that continues to resonate with me. I believe this story (which I’ve paraphrased below) will lend itself to true innovation in patient engagement and partnership and, ultimately, better health and healthcare outcomes. Sofian’s presentation was engaging and colorful and his message was clear: We must think differently to truly engage and partner with patients.

“Think about current data collection and use innovations in healthcare provision. Currently, through claims and electronic health record data, we can learn that Mrs. Smith is a 55-year-old woman. She is moderately overweight, has diagnoses of pre-diabetes and mild depression and has not seen her primary care physician in 15 months.

How do we innovate and use this information? Via telemedicine. By turning data into action:

‘Mrs. Smith, this is Jennifer Morelle, Dr. Chapelle’s nurse. We’ve noticed that you have not been in to see Dr. Chapelle in quite some time, and Dr. Chapelle would very much like you to come in and have your glucose level checked. I would like to schedule a time to do so with you. When would be the best time for you to come in?’”

This is great. Physician practice captures data, mines data, leverages data—and then reaches out to engage the patient in an effort to improve her health and healthcare.  

And yet …

I believe we can do better. As a quality improvement organization, NICHQ constantly seeks opportunities to improve health and healthcare. In addition to using our QI methods to achieve this aim, innovation is increasingly a trademark of our work. (See our Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network [CoIIN] to Reduce Infant Mortality initiative as a major example of leveraging innovation to improve outcomes.) 

And so it was wonderful when Sofian continued:

“Now let’s picture capturing, mining and leveraging additional data points.”

As Sofian continued the story, we learned that:

“Mrs. Smith lost her beloved golden retriever, Trixie, 10 months ago and she is still heartbroken.”

Puppy!Now we can add this volunteered data point to the data mix and start to innovate. Sofian then imagined this more innovative approach to telemedicine:

“‘Mrs. Smith, this is Jennifer Morelle, Dr. Chapelle’s nurse. We here at Internal Medicine Associates have partnered with the local ASPCA on a new initiative to have 25 rescue puppies adopted in the next 30 days. Would you be interested in adopting one of the puppies? You would? Wonderful! We will provide you with coupons to the local pet store for three months of pet supplies and food, and we will fund four training sessions for your new puppy. Congratulations!’”

You might be asking, how does adopting puppies innovate patient engagement and partnership?

Well, studies have shown that pets can have a positive impact on people with mild to moderate depression.

Research has also shown that owning a dog can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and boost levels of endorphins in the brain. Owning a dog can lead to more exercise, better sleep and better fitness levels.

Finally, the costs associated with managing the adverse impact of Mrs. Smith’s weight, mild depression and pre-diabetes, dwarf the relatively minor costs associated with helping her to adopt a puppy.

So, is adopting rescue puppies the answer to patient engagement and partnership and improving health and healthcare for everyone? No.

But when we develop care models that allow for providers to truly engage and partner with patients at each and every healthcare encounter, patients are positioned to share their whole story, and the providers are positioned to listen and engage with more pertinent information. This leads to shared decision making, better engagement, compliance and outcomes, and fewer preventable errors.

All of us who work in the healthcare sector must reach beyond the familiar to develop new partnerships that expand our thinking and position us to innovate for the betterment of our patients.


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