Doctors should embrace feedback and learn from it

In Quality Measures and the Individual Physician, Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD questions the usefulness of feedback report cards for individual providers. She states, “Only 33% of my patients with diabetes have glycated hemoglobin levels that are at goal. Only 44% have cholesterol levels at goal. A measly 26% have blood pressure at goal. All my grades are well below my institution’s targets.”

It would be better for Dr. Ofri’s patients if these numbers were higher. I think even Dr. Ofri would agree with that assessment. And yet Dr. Ofri’s response to these low scores is that “the overwhelming majority of health care workers are in the profession to help patients and doing a decent job.” And more upsetting is Dr. Ofri’s conclusion where “I don’t even bother checking the results anymore. I just quietly push the reports under my pile of unread journals, phone messages, insurance forms, and prior authorizations.”

Dr. Ofri’s defense that doctors are smart and good people who are trying hard to help others does not reassure me as a patient or physician executive. Everything we know about cognitive neuropsychology tells us that humans are not good at judging our own competence in any field of endeavor. One hundred percent of high school students rank themselves as having a higher than average ability to get along with others (a mathematical impossibility), and 93% of college professors rank themselves as above average at their work.

Literature teaches us the same lesson. Martha Nussbaum discusses how Proust has Marcel confident that he does not love Albertine any longer. And then Marcel finds out that she has left; he now knows for certain, without the least room for doubt, that he loves her. Humans are masters at self-deception, and Michael S. Gazzaniga even hints that this quality separates humans from other animals.
Richard Russo makes a similar point in Straight Man about the need for humans to have feedback from others, about our inability to know ourselves without it. “Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, ‘I know you, Al. You are not the kind of man who.’” Physicians need report cards to tell us how well we are taking care of our patients, even when we sincerely think we are doing a fine job.

As Chief Medical Officer for a large health system, I never met a clinician who did not think that they did a good job at taking care of diabetic patients. And yet when I did an audit of their care, I found that many had suboptimal results. They were genuinely surprised that patients fall through the cracks and did not receive their required retina exams.

Physicians are always telling me that they have to be the leaders of the health care team. Well, then they need to accept that feedback is necessary for learning and improvement and leadership. Good leaders in my experience only do four things: they examine the environment and decide on a vision that can excite themselves and others. They translate the vision into strategies and tactics; they assign the strategies and tactics to someone to carry out; they then hold the responsible party or parties accountable for the results. In my experience health care does not do a good job at the accountability step.

Who is accountable for the quality of care in Dr. Ofri’s clinic? Do we have examples in medicine where someone has stepped up to the plate and become accountable so that the quality results improve instead of never budging from the results two years ago?
Dr. Kim A. Adcock, the radiology chief at Kaiser Permanente Colorado, created a system that misses one-third fewer cancers on mammograms and “has achieved what experts say is nearly as high a level of accuracy as mammography can offer.” At the heart of the program was his willingness to keep score and confront his doctors with their results. He had to fire three radiologists who missed too many cancers, and he had to reassign 8 doctors who were not reading enough films to stay sharp.

The Kaiser experience mirrors the literature on how to be a best performing organization in a chaotic, rapidly changing environment: one has to focus on sources of error and failure and learn from them to improve the results. The Kaiser leaders worried about negative publicity, malpractice claims, women neglecting the test due to skepticism, but in the end they did what was right for their patients. They tracked down the women who were at risk for having cancer even though the less skilled radiologist had read their films as normal.

I agree with Dr. Ofri that “we need good evidence that the data measure true quality and that providing data is actually helpful.” However we will never get to that point by not “checking the results anymore.” We have to emulate Dr. Adcock and wade into the messy reality of why Americans receive only 55% of indicated care. We can learn how to do better if we embrace feedback and learn from it; we cannot improve by ignoring reality. Trust me I am a doctor just doesn’t cut it. We all deserve better than that.

Kent Bottles provides health care leadership consulting and blogs at Kent Bottles Private Views.

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