HBA panel: True healthcare reform requires a better connection to patients

June 27, 2013 by Sony Salzman

Panelists at the 2nd annual Healthcare Businesswomen's Assn. conference say successful healthcare reform will remain out of reach until professionals truly understand what patients want.

HBA panel: True healthcare reform requires a better connection to patients

Four women hailing from all corners of the healthcare industry took the stage at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Assn. conference this month for a free-ranging discussion moderated by WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger.

Each seemed frustrated with "band-aids" – the industry's tendency to focus on using innovation to fix the U.S. healthcare system's flaws. The real issue, they said, is the disconnect between healthcare executives and U.S. patients.

"We in healthcare haven't figured out what is important to patients. Until we figure that out, all the technology in the world isn't going to help us," said Dr. Karen Boudreau, CMO of Boston Medical Center HealthNet, striking a chord with the 170 women in the audience.

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That's not as easy as it sounds. Novel medical devices and drugs have taught Buket Grau, a senior director at Biogen Idec (NSDQ:BIIB) and former global commercial strategy director at Stryker (NYSE:SYK), that patients often behave in ways technologists and doctors don't expect.

For example, she theorized, obesity-fighting devices like gastric stimulation might not work because on some level patients decide to ignore the device's mechanically-induced message to stop eating. This mind-over-machine effect might explain the limited clinical effectiveness of gastric stimulation in the States.

"If you look at medtech, it used to be that we used to make innovation decisions based on investments," Grau said. "Now, for all stakeholders, putting patients in the center – this is becoming a priority in conversations."

Another example of the patient / healthcare provider disconnect is "smart" packaging – a souped-up pill bottle designed to boost compliance rates by reminding patients to take their pills and sending the data to their physician.

HBA panel: True healthcare reform requires a better connection to patients

(L-R) Boudreau, Fitzgerald, Grau, Bennett and Bebinger

The smart packaging innovation did not become a truly game-changing technology because its inventors didn't address the root cause of poor compliance before designing a fix. Patients often choose not to take their medication (rather than forgetting), according to Wool Labs COO Michelle Bennett. Understanding why is the first step to boosting compliance, Bennett said.

Wool Labs is a consulting company that analyzes online patient conversations. Bennett said she sees a lot of patients taking the reins of their own health decisions and increasingly deferring to trusted peers rather than doctors. Healthcare reform needs to make room for patient advocates – non-MD experts to liaise between the patient and the healthcare provider, she said.

Anne Fitzgerald, network development vice president at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, echoed Bennett in emphasizing the need to tap into patients' perspectives, which are often invisible to healthcare providers.

"Patients share things with each other that they don't share with physicians," Fitzgerald said.

All the innovation in the world – from gastric stimulation to smart pill bottles – won't improve health if patients still feel healthcare is happening at them, rather than for them, Bennett added.

The upshot, according to the panel, is that patients are less and less likely to trust their healthcare providers. Healthcare reform is forcing executives to seriously examine this misalignment.