Spinal patients are some of those most in need of coordinated care. Yet spinal care is notoriously fractured and can be quite frustrating to navigate – and people are taking notice. Patrick Vega, M.S., Vice President, Corazon, Inc., recently authored a guest blog post for Becker’s Spine Review highlighting the need for improved spinal patient navigation.
Primary care providers (PCPs) typically refer patients to spinal specialists. The problem is that PCPs are usually not up to date on the latest developments in spinal care. And there is often little (if any) communication between the PCP and the specialist’s office. In fact, most of the time, nurses take care of the actual referral.
Part of the issue certainly stems from physicians’ busy schedules, but the fractured nature of communication between healthcare providers as a whole is also a significant player. For example, most spine specialists’ intake systems are internal. And lack of interoperability makes sharing data with outside practices inefficient and often error-ridden. Plus, it’s imperative that technology is used thoughtfully and as a connected system. Technology should be seen not as a problem, but as a solution; in spinal care, that’s often not the case.
Further, poor coordination between care providers also negatively impacts patients logistically. Waiting months to see a surgeon only to be told that you are one of the vast majority (more than 85%) of spine patients who do not require surgical treatment and need yet another referral is a frustrating experience for all involved. And that’s not to mention the risk of comorbidities, including anxiety and chronic pain, which often develop alongside spinal issues.
So what can be done? Vega believes, as we do, that properly coordinated, patient-centered care is the best way to improve outcomes for all involved in the treatment process. His suggestion is to develop a comprehensive intake, triage and navigation (ITN) care management system to bridge the gap between specialists and referring physicians. With such a system in place, patients will avoid being sent to the wrong specialist and will receive the treatment they need in a far more timely fashion. According to the article, a quality ITN process:
- Places a priority on customer service
- Provides expedited evaluation and treatment by the most clinically-appropriate spine specialist
- Maximizes quality of face-to-face time with spine specialists
- Results in better clinical outcomes
- Positions the hospital to capture incremental ancillary services
A prominent part of improving care coordination, and thus the patient experience, is the role of nurse navigators. While powerful and interoperable technology is certainly an important part of improving the patient experience, healthcare is about people first. Nurse navigators bring a human touch to the treatment plan. They facilitate communications between the patient and caregivers as well as ensure that patients are sent to the correct specialist. In doing so, navigators save providers time and money while also ensuring patients receive the best treatment possible.
And it’s also proven that care coordination boosts surgeon volumes. With fewer inaccurate referrals, surgeons will be able to focus on what they do best rather than determining patients’ treatment needs.
“Indeed, the greatest value in care coordination lies in improving the level of access to the most clinically-appropriate spine specialist in an expedited timeframe, communicating treatment paths to the patient and referring professional, and providing a truly remarkable patient experience.”So, what are the right next steps for hospitals and health systems seeking to improve their care coordination capabilities in spine? Sharing information and communicating more effectively are great first steps. Specialists and PCPs need to work together to ensure a more efficient and effective referral process for patients needing spinal treatment. And spine care providers need to understand that coordinated care will only help their practices – and their patients.