Put patients to work during their wait time

I talk with lot of physicians about the need to improve the quality of communications between physicians and patients.   Regular followers of my work will know that I am an advocate for the adoption of patient-centered communication skills by the physician and provider community.

Physicians with whom I talk seldom disagree as to the need for better physician-patient communications.   They know that physician communication skills top the list of patient complaints about their physicians, i.e., my doctor doesn’t listen,” “my doctor ignores me,” and so on.   Rather, they simply dismiss the subject out of hand as being impractical due to a “lack of time” on the part of most physicians.

I can understand their perspective.   Primary care physicians in particular are faced with sicker, more demanding patients, increased payer and regulatory requirements, and are constantly pressured to see more patients.

Yet physician waiting rooms and exam rooms are full of engaged patients (otherwise they wouldn’t be there) who have nothing to do but read outdated magazine.

What would happen if physicians actually put patients to work during wait time?

Here’s what I mean.

What if physicians integrated patient “wait time” into the office visit by:

  • Talking to patients (via printed handouts, electronic media, patient portals, etc.) about their evolving new role (and that of the physician and other providers) under health reform.  Contrary to the popular press which touts the empowered patient, most of us still assume the traditional “sick role” during the office visit.  The sick role is characterized by patient passivity, limited information sharing, and minimal question-asking.
  • Teaching people while waiting how (using the same media as above) to become “better patients.”   I recall an article where physicians were asked 5 things they wished their patients knew.  At the top of the physicians’ “wish list” was a desire for patient’s to be better prepared and more focused during the visit.  The point being that more prepared patients would help the physician get to the correct diagnosis and treatment plan faster.

All of us, beginning in childhood, are socialized into playing the sick role when interacting with physicians.   Just as chronic disease patients needing to develop self care skills and confidence in their self care skills, patients need to be taught skills for (and develop confidence in) how to more effectively talk to and collaborate with their physicians.

Laying out a game plan (over a series of visits) for teaching new and established patients when and how to effectively contribute to the medical interview (exam).   Given an average wait time of 22 minutes per primary care visit, it is not reasonable to assume that patients can be taught the above in the course of 1 or 2 visits.  But patients with chronic conditions often visit their PCP 6-8 times a year.  This would afford plenty of time (2-3 hours a year) for physicians to teach (and practice) individual skills to patients (i.e., agenda setting and prioritization, question asking skills, self-care management skills, new medication considerations, etc.).   By reinforcing lessons learned by patients over the course of several visits, it is reasonable to expect that both patient and physician will become more proficient in the use of their time together.

How exactly will better physician-patient communication lead to more productive visits?

Research has consistently shown that patient-centered communications (versus traditional physician-directed communications) can result in more productive office visits as measured by 1)  the amount/quality of information shared by patients, 2) the number of questions asked by patients, and 3)  and the level of patient retention of information shared by physicians.

These same studies show that the adoption of patient-centered communications adds little if any more time to the length of office visits.  Once patients and physicians become proficient in the use of patient-centered communications methods,  physicians may well be able to do more during the visit but in less time.  Here are some of the techniques characteristic of patient-centered  communications associated with increased visit productivity:

  •  Concise visit agenda setting and prioritization wherein both physician and patient  agreed to what can be discussed within the time allowed.  This  also eliminates the “oh by the way” introduction of last-minute patient agenda items that can occur at the end of the visit.
  • More concise  sharing of relevant information by the patient
  • Greater physician-patient agreement as to the diagnosis and treatment
  • More collaborative decision-making
  • More information retention by patients
  • Greater patient adherence

Steve Wilkins is a former hospital executive and consumer health behavior researcher who blogs at Mind The Gap.

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