Want Your ACO To Succeed? …Then You Better Focus On Improving How Your Doctors & Patients Communicate
The basic premise of the Accountable Care Organizations is simple enough. By incentivizing providers (physicians and hospitals) to assume financial responsibility for coordinating the health care of a defined patient population, it is possible to increase the quality of care while decreasing the cost of care delivery.
For ACOs to succeed, experts tell us that 3 things are required: 1) health information technology is needed to track and manage patient populations, 2) redesigned care delivery processes are needed to support patient care coordination, and 3) the right set of provider financial incentives must be in place.
The improvements in quality and cost effectiveness in large part are predicated upon providers being able to engage patients with the goal of changing their health behavior.
The problem is that most physicians lack the patient-centered communication skills needed to engage patients in their own health care not to mention persuade patients to change their health behavior.
An Example – Physician and Patient “Meeting of the Minds”
I think we can all agree that “telling patients what to do” is not an effective patient engagement or behavior management strategy. After all, if patients don’t agree with or understand the rationale for a recommendation from their doctor, they are not likely to comply with it.
Rather, a meeting of the minds by physicians and patients is needed…and that requires physicians understanding the patient’s perspective. The evidence bears this out. Higher ratings of trust, satisfaction, and intention to adhere occur when patients see themselves as similar to their physicians in personal beliefs, values, and communication.
The problem is that physicians and patients often disagree on even the most fundamental issues…and herein lies the problem:
- Doctors & patients disagree on the principal reasons for office visits 53% of the time.
- There is “substantial discordance” between the problems patients describe to physicians and the symptoms that physicians document in the EMR.
- For diabetic patients who cited pain or depression as their top health concern their physicians rated these conditions “as likely to affect the patient’s health outcomes” in only 9% and 32% of cases respectively. (Remember, 95% of the treatment for diabetes is patient self care). 
- 41% of patients disagree with their physician as to whether their presenting symptoms represented a psychological versus a medical problem. 
- Physician perceptions of “how pleased, cheerful, relieved, worried, angry, and disappointed” they thought the patients were during office visits differed significantly from patient rating of how they actually felt. 
- Physicians tend to underestimate the patient’s desire for health information in 65% of visits.
So What’s The Take Away?
Many physicians today are ill prepared to assume the role or financial responsibility of care coordination (or care management) given their lack of patient-centered communication skills. Notice I didn’t mention lack of time since effective use of patient-centered communication skills over time can actually save providers time.
Unless and until medical groups, hospitals, health plans, CMS, and ACOs address this critical shortcoming through providing physicians with the training, tools and resources needed to develop and refine patient-centered communication skills, ACOs will not deliver on their promise of more effective and efficient medical care.
That’s my opinion. What’s yours?
Sources: Street, R. et al. (2008) Understanding Concordance in Patient-Physician Relationships: Personal and Ethnic Dimensions of Shared Identity. Annals of Family Medicine. 6:198-205.  Greer, J. and H. R. (2006). Predictors of Physician-Patient Agreement on Symptom Etiology in Primary Care. Psychosomatic Medicine, 282, 277-282.  Stein, T. et al. (1999) Inaccuracies in physicians’ perceptions of their patients. Medical Care. Nov;37(11):1164-8.  Keulers, B. J., Scheltinga, M. R. M., Houterman, S., Van Der Wilt, G. J., & Spauwen, P. H. M. (2008). Surgeons underestimate their patients’ desire for preoperative information. World Journal of Surgery, 32(6), 964-70.