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Who taught you how to complain?

When during your training or your induction did anyone teach you how and when to express yourself when something did not meet with your expectations? Your parent might have said:

I know you’re angry darling but we don’t scratch and bite

How do your customers, clients, patients know how to complain? How did you learn to respond? Who models that behaviour for you? What is the approach to giving or receiving negative feedback where you work?

Picture by Paco Trinidad Photo

What do people see on your desk?

Okay so you might not have chosen the wall paper, the carpet or the size of your office but what’s on display on your desk? What impression is created at a glance? Do you look organised? Do you look like you’ve got the time to give your visitors some attention?

There are six reasons to clean off your desk and as Catherine Conlan suggests:

Remember, your workspace speaks for you even when you’re not there.

Picture by Andrew Tarvin

How do you explain?

In any meeting where you are the expert how do you explain technical details? As a doctor how do you explain viral illness? Warts? Heart disease? Cancer? How do you know the other person ‘gets it’? Do you say the same thing every time? Do you use pictures? Sounds? Have you practiced the script as much as you practice other aspects of your art? Why or why not?

Andrew McDonald wrote in the BMJ:

The development of such a language, securely founded in shared meanings, would be a good first step towards better communication between professionals and patients. It would not, of course, deliver the goal of full participation in decision making, but that goal will remain elusive unless we begin by understanding one another.

Picture by Marco Verch

How do you end your meetings?

We know how to start a meeting- we stand up, shake hands, say hello, smile. But what’s the best way to end a meeting? It matters for one reason:

The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The effect occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. Wikipedia

If you are a doctor this is all the more important because people generally don’t seek a meeting with you because all is well. They may be experiencing all sorts of unpleasant feelings. So how do you end that meeting? How do you know it’s working?

Picture by Peter Lee

How does your skill at communicating manifest in your interactions?

It is assumed that doctors have to be specialists in communication. People will tell doctors things they may not confide in anyone else- much less a total stranger. That is part of the equity in the business of doctoring. So if you are a doctor, how does that manifest in your interactions with the people who seek your help? Is it reflected in your greetings? In your body language? In your eye contact? In the way you phrase your questions? In the way you terminate your meetings?

Picture by Paul Moody

The most valuable lesson learned on my first day as a doctor

Picture by JD Lasica

The infographic bandwagon rolling in to your clinic

In the wake of her book launch I had the honour to interview Dr. Halee Fischer-Wright President and CEO of MGMA. In her book: ‘Back to  balance:The art, science and business of medicine’ the author asserts:

We have lost our focus on strengthening the one thing that has always produced healthier patients, happier doctors, and better results: namely, strong relationships between patients and physicians, informed by smart science and enabled by good business.

In a separate blog post Larry Alton, business consultant addressing the business community says:

In 2017, you’ll find it difficult – if not impossible – to be successful without strategizing around customer communications. Customers have become conditioned to expect interaction and service. Provide both and you’ll be delighted with the results.

Most people will interact only with primary care when they need healthcare. The average consultation in primary care is less than 15 minutes. Therefore efficient communication is a priority. Larry Alton goes on to advise:

Communication is at the heart of engaging and delighting customers. The problem is that, even with all of the new advancements in communication technology, very few businesses are taking this all-important responsibility seriously. This results in poor relationships and a bad brand image.

His four key action points are:

  1. Hire empathetic employees
  2. Leverage the right communication mediums
  3. Use analogies to explain technical concepts
  4. Become a good listener

One area that seems to receive scant attention in medical practice is explaining technical concepts. And yet technical concepts are integral to medical practice:

  1. What pathology brought me here today?
  2. Why has my physiology responded in this way?
  3. What is the prognosis?
  4. Why do need this therapy?
  5. What are the risks?

Ours is a technologically proficient but emotionally deficient and inconsistent medical system that is best at treating acute, not chronic, problems: for every instance of expert treatment, skilled surgery, or innovative problem-solving, there are countless cases of substandard care, overlooked diagnoses, bureaucratic bungling, and even outright antagonism between doctor and patient. For a system that invokes “patient-centered care” as a mantra, modern medicine is startlingly inattentive—at times actively indifferent—to patients’ needs. Meghan O’Rourke

When explaining complex ideas there is a checklist:

  1. Does the patient want all the information?
  2. What are the implications of the prognosis?
  3. How can you explain with reference to something they are already know?
  4. What details can you leave out that would only serve to distract from an understanding?
  5. How can the patient assimilate this information actively?

Adapted from a post by Thorin Klosowski

Perhaps the neatest medium to communicate some aspects of a complex idea is the infographic. According to experts:

In the past 5 years, the term “infographic” has seen an impeccable rise in trend.In fact, the popularity of infographics is expected to see an increase of almost 5% by next year, meaning that anyone who isn’t yet riding the infographic bandwagon is bound to fall behind. The Daily Egg

Here are the data:

The Journal of Health Design has recently introduced the Infographic as a submission type. Communicating using this medium could reduce the time required to assimilate the information needed to make a decision.

Picture attribution

Designers will rescue the health sector

Much of what we do in healthcare is communicate ideas. That is far more common than ‘doing’. Executive control over decisions are the purview of the patient. It is a basic tenant of medicine that the patient has autonomy.

Often armed with little more than a stethoscope doctors must communicate to the patient that:

When communication about the evidence base is effective the patient, the practitioner and ultimately the economy benefit. How we communicate such ideas is where innovation has the brightest future. It gives us hope that we can improve outcomes in health without recourse to major policy change or curbing freedom of choice.

We communicate in words, pictures, video, audio and using models. Yet so much of how that is done in the doctor’s office hasn’t changed over the decades. ‘It’s just a virus’ doesn’t cut it any more.

We experience the power of effective communication everyday and in every other area of our lives. Look at your credit card statement this month- does it all make sense? What pressed your ‘purchase‘ button?

What if this extraordinary power deployed so effectively in commerce was unleashed in the clinic?

Picture by Dan Moyle

Are we are obstructing the doctor with gadgets?

Despite billions of dollars of investment in technology the results in healthcare are disappointing.

Information Technology (IT) surrounds us every day. IT products and services from smart phones and search engines to online banking and stock trading have been transformative. However, IT has made only modest and less than disruptive inroads into healthcare. Nicolas Terry (2013)

This was predicted in a prophetic article by Gregory Hackett (1990) when he concluded that:

The primary reason is that technology alone does not determine corporate performance and profitability. Employee skills and capabilities play a large role, as do the structures of day-to-day operations and the company’s policies and procedures. In addition the organisation must be flexible enough to respond to an increasingly dynamic environment. And products must meet customer requirements. Investment in Technology-The Service Sector Sinkhole? SMR Forum Service

However, there are still those who seem enamoured of machines:

Rapid growth of robotic industry is leading to novel applications in medical field. Evolution of new terminologies like tele-presence, tele-medicine, tele-consultation, tele-diagnosis, telerounding, tele-health centers, tele-doctors, tele-nurses are overwhelming and required to be readdressed.  Iftikhar

That way leads to a nightmarish world in which we push vulnerable people onto an assembly line and healthcare looks like this but also includes the dehumanising impact of machines:

….. hospitalists care for sick inpatients and are charged with rapid throughput by their administrative overlords; nocturnists do this job as well — but at night; intensivists take over when work in a critical care unit is required; transitionalists step in when the patient is ready to be moved on to rehabilitation (physiatrists) or into a skilled nursing facility (SNFists). Almost at the end of the line are the post-acutists in their long-term care facilities and the palliativists — tasked with keeping the patient home and comfortable — while ending the costly cycle of transfers back and forth to the hospital. Finally, as the physician-aid-in-dying movement continues to gain support, there will be suicidalists adept at handling the paperwork, negotiating the legal shoals and mixing the necessary ingredients when the time comes. Jerald Winakur- The Washington Post

Technology now impinges on every interaction- for better and for worse:

There were the many quiet voices who urged circumspection as long ago as 1990:

Diagnosis is a complex process more involved than producing a nosological label for a set of patient descriptors. Efficient and ethical diagnostic evaluation requires a broad knowledge of people and of disease states. The state of the art in computer-based medical diagnosis does not support the optimistic claim that people can now be replaced by more reliable diagnostic programs. Miller

One could not argue against technology as a tool but the art of medicine requires that technology helps the doctor. People are not disordered machines and the promise of better health is not forthcoming as we throw money at machines hoping for greater access, efficiency, and safety. However, there is now mounting evidence that the patient is not responding and it’s time to pause for thought, again.

It’s not that complicated. Healthcare works when the doctor and her patient are on the same page. So to what extent does a gadget or gizmo allow that? Does it help them to:

  1. Work out what’s wrong together?
  2. Make it easier for them to work together?
  3. Make it easier for them to achieve a goal together?

If it becomes a substitute for the doctor it will disappoint. People respond best to human doctors. No ifs or buts. Medical school 101. Doctors also have choices in how they deploy and interact with technology. Turning to face the computer, ordering a test and recommending an app aren’t always the way to the best outcome.

Picture by Guian Bolisay 

Spend a few dollars to enhance the experience at your clinic

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Do you associate a smell with your doctor’s clinic? If you do it’s unlikely to be anything pleasant. I remember my GP’s waiting room when I was a child. He consulted, as did most doctors at that time, from his home and the patients waited in his converted garage. It was always cold and smelled-‘damp’. Not a nice place to be when you had a fever or anticipated an injection. The smell evoked the impression of being somewhere like the picture above which apparently is an abandoned hospital near Berlin. Research suggests this is not surprising:

Subjects then rated their memories as to how happy or unhappy the events recalled were at the time they occurred. Subjects in the pleasant odor condition produced a significantly greater percentage of happy memories than did subjects in the unpleasant odor condition. When subjects who did not find the odors at least moderately pleasant or unpleasant were removed from the analysis, more pronounced effects on memory were found. J of personality and social psychology

So the unpleasant memories of being ill and anticipating pain were reinforced by the musty smell of that waiting room.

We all know that smell can affect our feelings, whether it’s a loved one’s favourite perfume or the smell of a pastry in our favourite bakery. Humans are able to recall smells with an impressive 65% accuracy a year after smelling them, compared to just 50% of visuals after only three months, making it all the more important to use this additional sensory tool when trying to engage with customers. Engage Customer

Of all the things we consider about the experience we offer our patients smell is the least of them and yet potentially the most powerful. We carefully pick the colour scheme, the toys and magazines, may be even the floor coverings and the video entertainment but rarely if ever the smell. Perhaps it is because until relatively recently it was thought that humans had a poor sense of smell. However research has debunked that myth:

These results indicate that humans are not poor smellers (a condition technically called microsmats), but rather are relatively good, perhaps even excellent, smellers (macrosmats). This may come as a surprise to many people, though not to those who make their living by their noses, such as oenologists, perfumers, and food scientists. Anyone who has taken part in a wine tasting, or observed professional testing of food flavors or perfumes, knows that the human sense of smell has extraordinary capacities for discrimination. Gordon Shepherd, PLOS Biology

Here’s Engage Customer again:

Scent and sensory marketing have the potential to increase sales, boost brand loyalty, spur brand advocacy and create a strong lasting emotional connection with customers. Customer experience goes far beyond simply what meets the eye, or the ear, so try and create a lasting impression for your customers which appeals to all their senses.

Researchers shown consistently that scent has an important impact on satisfaction but also on the quality of the interactions between people in a public space. This has implications for the value of one of the ‘props’ in your practice i.e. the smell.

whats-it-aboutListen to Fred Lee  vice president at two major medical centers and a cast member at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He suggests in this TEDx talk that we should be focusing on ‘patient experience’ rather than ‘patient satisfaction’. More than 137,000 people have listened already.

We need to move away from the limitations of ‘patient satisfaction’ which is characterised by the cheesy phrase:

What else can I do for you today?

To patient experience which is all about engaging with the patient in all five senses. Some service providers are already on to this:

Airlines Infuse Planes With Smells To Calm You Down (And Make You Love Them). The Huffington post

Picture by Stefano Corso