The term “patient-centered care” is in vogue and utilized by health system administrators, marketing gurus, hospital staff, and clinicians alike. It’s a catchy phrase that resonates with stakeholders, and it sounds like something every healthcare organization would heartily embrace. However, the heart of patient-centered care and its implications for how care is actually provided to patients is not well understood.
The Institute of Medicine defines patient-centered care as “providing care that is respectful of, and responsive to, individual patient preferences, needs, and values, and ensuring that patient values guide all clinical decisions” (HealthLeads, 2018; Wolfe, 2001). The goal of patient-centered care is focused primarily on the health outcomes of the individual rather than the entire population (NEJM Catalyst, 2017). However, by prioritizing the individual’s health, populations’ health outcomes are improved as well (Cramm & Neiboer, 2016). Additionally, patient-centered care presents possible economic advantages for both hospitals and patients (David, Saynisch, & Smith-McLallen, 2018).
However, there are many barriers that must be overcome to live up to the aspirational definition of patient-centered care and experience the benefits this approach offers.
Barriers to patient-centered care
An article released last year by Academy Health outlines many of the barriers to patient-centered care (Sinaiko, Szumigalski, Eastman, & Chien, 2019). It highlights that these barriers are “pervasive” within the healthcare system. The current lack of agility within healthcare as an industry has limited the customizability of care delivery, and there are many broad sections of the population that are paying the price.
Erasmus spoke of “the talking power of money,” and it is true that “money talks” centuries later in today’s healthcare system. Many healthcare systems continue to utilize fee-for-service. While this approach is hotly debated amongst healthcare professionals and economists, many believe fee-for-service models create incentives for providers to encourage face-to-face or volume building visits, and are widely indicted for promoting care that is inefficient, uncoordinated, and too often fails to meet the needs of patients (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2002).
The fee-for-service system serves to drive up volume and encourages hospital and community health organizations to make money and support their healthcare system rather than the needs of the patient. This may lead providers to perform unnecessary surgeries, x-rays, or lab work, to name a few common examples, in order to increase revenue, rather than focus on the patient’s desire to receive only the care they need at a cost they can afford.
It is recognized, however, that the fault does not just rest with the organization. Often, the regulatory burden on providers and hospitals is unrealistic and cumbersome, stifling innovation (Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2018). This can lead to the tail wagging the dog with organizations feeling pressure to meet regulatory needs before addressing patient needs in order to gain reimbursements.
Unsurprisingly, the culture of the organization impacts patient outcomes and the practice of patient-centered care (Hahtela, McCormack, Doran, Paavilainen, Slater, Helminen, & Suominen, 2017). It is not enough to simply tout a patient-centered approach in annual reports, periodic training, glossy posters, mission statements, email signatures, or quick notes in a staff meeting. Everyone associated within the organization—from executives to clinicians to non-clinical support staff to volunteers—must hold attitudes and beliefs consistent with patient-centeredness (Gorli, Liberati, Galuppo, & Scaratti, 2016; Agha, Werner, Reddem, Huseman, Long, & Shea, 2018).