Physician: "How have you been feeling this week?"
Patient: "I was pretty sick – vomiting a lot. Not sure if it was one of the meds I am on or not."
Physician: “Why didn’t you call? We could have perhaps called in a prescription to help you or changed your meds.”
Patient: “Well, I didn’t want to bother you.”
This is a sample conversation like one that Dr. Ethan Basch, who is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at UNC, alluded to in a recent podcast. Many physicians regularly face similar situations because patients feel uncomfortable self-reporting symptoms associated with diseases and treatment.
Traditionally, patients do not believe that they have easy access to their physician. Reporting their symptoms, pain scale changes or concerns can seem like an uphill battle. And in many cases they are right. It often feels like running a gauntlet to contact your physician to report an issue. You know the all-too-familiar drill; "Press 2 to leave a message and a nurse will return your call."
It turns out that using simple tools and methods to proactively reach out to patients and persuade them to tell you how they are doing has amazing results for all, including:
- Opening two-way lines of communication with patients
- Helping control symptoms
- Reducing unnecessary emergency room visits, hospitalizations and adverse events
- Improving outcomes
- Increasing patient satisfaction
Look for ways to proactively engage your patients so they understand that the lines of communication are open – and that you want to hear from them. Texts that simply ask how they are feeling, or more direct questions based on their personal treatment regimes, can create a communication channel that prompts them to share potentially valuable information, which can ultimately lead to better outcomes.
On the other side of the coin, patients will be more active and engaged when they know that the information they provide will be put to good use. If it seems that health care professionals are not paying attention or are indifferent to the feedback, they will be more reluctant to provide private information. Knowing that their personal information will be put to use in their treatment assures patients that their physician cares and that communication is important.
In fact, in oncology, it turns out that people live longer when they are given simple questionnaires between visits to communicate with their doctors, says Dr. Basch in the podcast. More accurate symptom information means more targeted and effective treatment, which itself saves time and cuts costs downstream by tackling problems when they arise.
Dr. Basch also suggests that patients simply do not believe they have the resources to talk with their physician about how they are feeling:
“[Patients] exchange information about how they’re feeling all the time. They exchange information about the side effects from their medications. They exchange information about the symptoms of their disease. And we miss that … I think it’s because, in many ways this aspect of medicine, like many aspects of medicine, don’t start with the patient in mind. They start with the provider and the institution in mind.”
It sometimes seems as if patients are out-of-sight, out-of-mind – that is not how patient-centered care works. Truly focusing healthcare on the patient means managing symptoms wherever they occur, even out of the office. That’s why care coordination is so important. It unifies all aspects of the patient’s treatment including home care and monitors their symptoms and recovery across the care journey. The more coordination and communication there is, the better outcomes will be across the industry.