One of the buzz phrases in healthcare today is “patient engagement”. It seems that you can’t go to a medical or scientific conference without coming across a panel discussion on the topic. A recent Partnering For Cures* event in San Francisco was no exception. But here the conversation took on a very different tone, one that challenged what the term meant and then said that if we are really serious about engaging patients, then doctors and drug companies need to change the way they think and operate.
That tone was set from the start of the discussion when moderator Claudia Williams said even the term “patient engagement” suggests that it is something “being imposed, or at least allowed, from the outside; by experts and doctors and those in charge.”
Williams quoted Erin Moore, the mother of a young boy with cystic fibrosis saying “No one is more engaged than the patient. I want the experts, the doctors, the pharmaceutical companies to be engaged.”
Need to train doctors
Dr. Roni Zeiger, the former Chief Health Strategist at Google, said doctors aren’t trained to truly listen to and engage with patients, and that has to change:
“I sometimes think of myself as a recovering paternal physician. When I listen to and learn from patients and families I am surprised, every time, at the breadth and depth of the conversations. All of the things that we, in the medical field, do from designing a waiting room to designing a clinical trial to deciding when and how to have a conversation, we bring a tremendous amount of assumptions to those. And those assumptions are often wrong. I think that on a daily basis we should be looking at the key work we do and ask are there assumptions here I should throw away and talk to those I serve and get their help in redesigning things in a way that makes more sense.”
Jennifer Mills, the Director of Patient Engagement (that phrase again) at biotech giant Genentech, said those mistakes are made by everyone in the field:
“The biggest assumption for me is thinking about patients with a capital P, as a homogeneous group, instead of realizing they are also individuals. We need to address them as a group and as individuals depending on the circumstances.”
Caregivers count too
For example as people get older and rely on a partner or spouse to take care of them it may be important to not just engage with the patient but also with the caregiver. And the needs for each of them may not be the same.
At that point the conversation turned to the use of data. Lucia Savage, the Chief Privacy and Regulatory Officer at Omada Health, said it is going to be increasingly important to give people control over their own medical data, and sometimes the medical data of others.
“Caregivers need access to healthcare records. For example, I can check my mom’s labs. If I message her doctors they can share that information with me. It’s great because it helps us help her lead an independent life as an 80 year old.”
Savage also pointed out that we need to be careful how we interpret data. She said she could go shopping and buy three extra-large bags of potato chips. On the face of it that doesn’t look good. But did she buy those chips for herself or her daughter’s soccer team. The data is the same. The implications are very different.
Partnership not patronizing
The discussion ended with an attempt to outline what being a good health citizen means. Just as citizenship involves both rights and responsibilities on the part of the individual and society, health citizenship too involves rights and responsibilities on the part of the individual and the biomedical research and health care world. Patients deserve to be treated as individuals who have a vested interest in their own health. They don’t need “experts” to talk down or patronize them or assume they know best.
Mills says she is seeing progress in this area:
“Companies are moving from assuming what patients need to asking what they need. We once assumed that if we were in the therapeutic area long enough we didn’t need to ask what patients need. I’m seeing that change.”
Deloitte Consulting’s Beth Meagher said we need to look beyond technology and focus on the people:
“Humility is going to be the killer app. The true innovators are really being humble and realizing that to have the kind of impact they are looking for, there is a need to work in a way they haven’t before. “
*Partnering for Cures is a project of Michael Milken’s FasterCures, whose goal is to save lives by speeding up and improving the medical research system.