Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Patient-centered care

I started to blog about two new reports from the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Both relate to patient-centered care, a major area of interest for the IOM in the past decade. But then I got distracted by some headlines that seem somehow related: The first was a New York Times piece, "The Downside of Doctors Who Feel Your Pain." The article, written by a young physician who considers herself to be empathetic and likable, wonders aloud if the current emphasis on improving the doctor-patient relationship is just a fad. Furthermore, she wonders if the adage her father introduced to her, "competence is inversely proportional to how much patients like" the physician, might have some truth to it. Appropriately, she questions how one measures the impact of improved interpersonal skills in overall healthcare quality and cost. Of course, palliative care was a little ahead of the curve in emphasizing interpersonal skills. Billings & Block at Harvard; Tulsky's pioneering research; Back, Arnold, Tulsky & company's Oncotalk training; ELNEC and EPEC (and EPEC-O); and family meeting as a bedrock "procedure" of palliative care are all examples.

"The Virtual Nurse Will See You Now" and "Friending Your Doctor Online" are recent offerings in the online newspaper, Technology Review. I was surprised to read that patients found the virtual nurse, "Elizabeth," a computer simulation, was likeable and effective. Patients are reported to resonate with the empathic responses of Elizabeth and to respond well to her instructions and coaching. [I wonder how well she would get along with Siri?] A physician-prescribed social network designed by a startup called Wellaho is in clinical trials in San Diego. It differs from other health-related social networks by including clinicians and by being integrated with the electronic health record. Might this improve coordination across disciples and care sites? Could it reduce hospital readmissions through improved monitoring and communication?

Back to the IOM: Patient-Clinician Communication: Basic Principles and Expectations is the inaugural IOM Discussion Paper, a new IOM series. Patient-Centered Cancer Treatment Planning: Improving the Quality of Oncology Care is the report of a workshop (Feb 28 – Mar 1, 2011) jointly sponsored by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and IOM. Both of these publications grew out of the IOM emphasis on patient-centered care that was highlighted in the 2001 consensus report, Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century. In that report patient-centeredness was identified as one of six key characteristics of quality care.

Patients are the “ultimate stakeholders” in an increasingly complex delivery system, often with poor coordination and unclear roles. “The effectiveness of patient-clinician communication can be as important as that of a diagnostic or treatment tool.” Basic principles of patient-clinician communication are enumerated: mutual respect, harmonized goals, a supportive environment, appropriate decision partners, the right information, transparency and full disclosure, and continuous learning. In cancer care the last point might be illustrated by the follow-up/reassessment visit before the next in a series of treatments, the transition visit between treatment modalities or at the end of treatment, or the reassessment following a family meeting or after introducing a treatment for a bothersome symptom.

"Patient-Clinician Communication" is short, pretty straightforward, and appropriate for use in an introductory education offering in improving communication skills. It is, after all, a discussion paper, and is likely to spark substantive discussion in classroom and workshop settings.

Applying these principles to cancer treatment planning is a challenge. 80% of cancer patients are treated in the community where fragmentation of services is inherent, but even academic medical centers are subject to communication hurdles (I know many of your are astounded to read that). The average cancer patient sees three specialists who may each be in a different location and has multiple treatments across time and space. Imaging and blood tests might also be in different locations. Each setting and even different departments within an institution may have documentation systems that don’t link with each other. Tumor Boards, designed to improve multidisciplinary care, may not insert their conclusions into the patient record and don’t include the patient in the discussion of treatment recommendations. Meanwhile, patients may access information from friends or the Internet that adds further complexity and confusion, despite the availability of high-quality Web sites. Many patients lose touch with their primary care practitioner during the acute treatment phase.

The major recommendations of the conference were that a shared decision-making model be used and that each patient be given a written treatment plan. Shared decision-making includes an active partnership between patient and physician in which shared treatment goals are agreed, risks and benefits of various alternatives are discussed, and the values and preferences of each are honored. A written treatment plan includes collaborative input from each discipline and specialty involved, incorporates patient preferences, and identifies the responsible clinician(s) for each phase of care. The treatment plan is organic and may need to be revised as the patient progresses through treatment. The treatment plan then becomes the basis for the treatment summary and survivorship care plan, documents advocated by a previous influential IOM report, From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition. A good summary of the treatment planning publication can be found in the Oct 10 issue of Oncology Times.

The cancer treatment planning conference did not limit itself to the acute treatment phase of care. It also covered advance care planning, survivorship planning, and planning care for advanced disease. Despite the splash made by Jennifer Temel's early palliative care study in late 2010, it was mentioned only once in this report, in the context of advanced care planning. Discussants included Tom Smith, Betty Ferrell, and others well-known to the palliative care community.

The cancer-planning document is not a peer-reviewed report, like "From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor." None-the-less, it is meaty and the discussants are all well-known and influential. I suspect (and hope) that it will become the basis for numerous discussions around the country about improving the process of treatment planning at all phases of cancer care.

[IOM products are available for purchase in hard copy, can be viewed free on the IOM web site, and many, including those mentioned here, can be downloaded in free in PDF format].

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