As chief patient experience officer for Carolinas HealthCare System, Connie Bonebrake is working to improve physician-patient communication.
That’s why she took the unusual step of inviting Denise Schafer and her friend, Lenore Foote, to a two-hour meeting with hospital leaders so the women could air their complaints about the care Schafer received at Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville in June.
A social worker by training, Bonebrake also invited the women to continue contributing suggestions for improvement by becoming advisers to the system. Carolinas HealthCare has 12 patient and family advisory councils that provide feedback for the system’s Charlotte-area hospitals. Bonebrake said neither Schafer and Foote has responded. The women say they’re considering the request.
Some patient advisers have had “less than perfect experiences” but have chosen “productive ways to help us be better,” Bonebrake said. “This is the kind of thing that my position was created for. We know that communication is important and that historically we (in health care) have not necessarily been the best communicators.”
To address the issue, Dr. Justin Haynie, a cardiologist with Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, is leading communication classes for physicians using a curriculum he developed after observing similar classes at the Cleveland Clinic. More than 30 doctors have taken his class, and more are scheduled.
The classes cover skills, such as “reflective listening,” which involves repeating what “I think I heard you say,” Bonebrake said. Doctors also learn to show empathy – “getting into someone else’s shoes and making sure you understand how they feel,” she said.
“Any progressive health care organization (sees) physician communication as a key strategy that we’ve got to address,” Bonebrake said. “I don’t think you’ll find many examples who are taking it more seriously than we are.”
Novant Health, which operates four hospitals in the Charlotte area, also is focusing on “patient-centered care.” Earlier this year, Sean Keyser was named corporate vice president for the system’s patient experience office after serving for 10 years in a similar job with a different name.
Keyser said the name change is more than trendy: “A patient experience is a whole lot more than customer service. Our job is to look at all the things the patients experience and ask what should we be changing.”
One of his employees, Tammy Wright, is director of Voice of the Customer/Experience Intelligence, a department that gathers and analyzes responses to patient surveys.
Novant has identified 22 physician “champions” who will be coaching peers on “empathic communication” and how to become better listeners. Keyser’s division also has nine employees trained in social anthropology techniques, such as ethnography. They spend time observing patients “to see what we can learn from them that we would never learn through a survey or a focus group,” Keyser said.
Among the findings: Patients and families often say “No” when doctors and nurses stand at the door and ask, “Do you have any questions?” A better approach is to sit near the patient and ask, “What questions do you have?”