Friday, July 30, 2010

Increasing patient empathy: what patients can do

In a previous post, I explained how the unique economic structure of the healthcare market presents an inherent challenge for the cultivation of empathy between medical device manufacturers and patients. The gist of the problem is that manufacturers often sell their devices to doctors or hospital administrators, who then [usually] decide for patients which brand of device the patient is going to get. Since patients are not the decision-making consumer, there is little financial incentive for manufacturers to concern themselves with the patient experience and understand (at an empathic level) what it's like to be a patient. Contrast this with an industry like consumer electronics, in which end users are decision-making consumers, and you can see why the consumer electronics world ends up with products like the iPhone and the medical device world ends up with products like the Monicard Home System pictured above.

Right now patients are sort of an ancillary component to what Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery refer to as the "customer experience supply chain" in their book Do You Matter?. In other words, patients do not have a significant impact on what manufacturers perceive to be the important parts of the customer experience. The key to building empathy with patients, then, is to get patients to become a legitimate component of the customer experience supply chain.

It will likely be a long time before the healthcare system is truly consumer-driven and patients are eagerly pre-ordering the latest stent from So in the meantime, here are some practical ideas for how medical device patients can become part of the customer experience supply chain right away.

Patients can become effective communicators with their doctor(s):
Effective communication means asking good questions (do research online before going to the doctor!) and being honest about any feedback or concerns one might have with their device, as well as being assertive and demanding that the doctor not shrug off what she considers to be a trivial issue. Doctors don't remember everything a patient tells them (they're human, after all), but the more feedback they hear from patients the more likely they are to pass that feedback onto the manufacturers.

Patients can communicate with each other:
In a lot of industries, word-of-mouth is considered the best form of advertising. Indeed, there's likely a lot of word-of-mouth "advertising" that goes on between doctors. Encouragingly, patients have begun using the Internet to swap stories and share their device experiences with each other. As long as patients maintain effective communication with their doctor (see above), information shared between patients will eventually make its way to doctors.

Again, the key is for patients to influence the decision-makers, and by talking with doctors about what they've read on the Internet (even if patients bring up a bunch of rumors), doctors are more likely to pass that feedback on to a manufacturer. In the case of errant rumors, for example, a manufacturer might use such feedback to improve whatever aspect of their system was causing the rumors to be propagated in the first place. And voila, empathy for the patient.

Patients can demand their device's data:
Just as one might expect a diagnostics report or explanation from a mechanic prior to having work done on a car, patients should expect the same level of transparency (at least!) from their doctor. I suppose the mantra would be, "Trust, but verify." If a patient has a device that spits out data, then that patient should feel entitled to not only getting a copy of the data but also to getting an explanation of the data that they can understand. By familiarizing herself with the data, a patient is more likely to learn about how their respective device works. Patients can be lectured all day about how device X measures parameter Y and delivers therapy Z, but until they can actually connect the dots between their health and the data tracked by the device, they're less likely to fully appreciate the capabilities of the device.

When patients appreciate the capabilities of the device, they can become more involved patients. Not only does this translate to more effective communication with their doctor (see above), it also positions the patient to take on a more consumer-type role when they need their device replaced or need to add an accessory to the device. As such, the next time their doctor prescribes a device, the patient will be able to offer an informed opinion to their doctor, something which would have a significant influence on the doctor as purchasing decisions are being made.

Next up: what manufacturers can do to increase patient empathy.

Image from here.

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