On health care, patient engagement, and social physics

Last summer, I worked for a pretty large health care organization in between my two years of graduate school. My primary focus/assignment was on fixing the Intranet for one business unit of this organization — made sense, because my background is primarily in content, as you may be able to tell from this blog (or not) — but after a few weeks, I realized that was taking up about 22-25 hours a week, and I was generally at work 40-50 (traffic patterns would usually cause me to come in early or stay late). As such, I went hunting for other projects (look at me, all pro-active and the like). In the process, I started working on something around the idea of “culture and compact.” Essentially, it was customer service training for over 100 physicians who had ties to this network; we were designing trainings around how they could maximize the patient experience and also make sure they had a workable internal culture (i.e. a situation where support staff aren’t always leaving because they hate working in the office). Internal (staff) + external (patients) focus, with the goal of providing the best atmosphere for each. In the modern health care environment, it can seem like a Herculean task. Health care is a messed-up world some days, but solutions could be just around the corner (could be).

Because of all this, I thought this article from CIO about health care and patient engagement was really interesting. You can read through it all at your leisure, but there’s an interesting section on social physics as relates to health care; social physics is detailed in that video above — Alex “Sandy” Pentland is considered one of the main people within that field — but essentially, this is what it all means:

Social physics comes into play, Pentland says, when someone else benefits from your good habits, and vice versa. It turns out that inspiring someone else to choose an apple instead of a doughnut, as you’ve done, has a greater overall benefit that simply receiving a benefit yourself. (That’s why marketers want to know what your connections and influencers are doing, Pentland points out.)

This all goes back to basic issues around habit formation, but it speaks to the idea that if good behavior and best practices are spread far and wide across a network of people you value, that can help enact change at the individual level. That’s powerful stuff, mostly because I think one of the central questions of our time is how do you get anyone to listen to anything being said? It’s more important a question than it was even 50 years ago, because there’s such a cacophony of viewpoints and information out there now. Has your immediate social network become more important in the process, or less so?

A couple of other interesting takeaways from some of this around health care:

1. They mention the idea that it’s ridiculous that — at most doctors’ offices, at least — patients can’t log on and schedule their own appointment, even though most people are used to doing that at work / with other service providers. I’m sure there’s a broader compliance issue here / doctors’ time is fairly valuable and shouldn’t be externally-held, but that is something interesting that more doctors should experiment with. If done right, I think it would only increase the connection between the doctor and the patient.

2. Part of the issue here is the same with most other industries — people think throwing technology at problems will necessarily solve them. They often make things easier, but when there’s too much technology available (such as a system for managing patient data, or an iPad app for waiting rooms), that also means doctors and staffs have to evaluate the different options — which is time-consuming — and could pick the wrong thing based on imperfect information. That ultimately sets back the entire process.

3. Another disconnect is the sheer presence of money in the medical world. There’s a lot of it. People want parts of that pie. So while 99.9 percent of doctors would say their primary goal is helping patients (and mean that when they say it), there’s still the aspect of how much money is on the table by just shifting a few things here and there. Where I worked is different because doctors aren’t always linked back to a health care organization, but there were clear issues with that model. When we tried to design these culture trainings, the big-wigs at the org wanted more focus on more patients (more $$$), and less focus on working well with staff/customer service.

4. I don’t think health care has thought along the lines of “customer service” / “consumer benefits” until recently. That’s both a good and bad thing; hopefully the focus shifts there even more. Doctors get most of their core business off referrals and word-of-mouth, so having excellent customer service practices in place is quite important.

5. Obviously privacy and data are major issues in the immediate future of health care. It doesn’t seem that hard to anonymize data and tackle it that way, but clearly there are concerns therein.

6. Final thought: at that same job last summer, I got to do some work with a clinic in Virginia who has pretty complicated and thorough patient-and-families education programs — so basically, on Thursday nights, family members and loved ones can come in and learn about different things that are afflicting the main patient. I don’t think enough doctors and offices do stuff like this; my father-in-law is a doctor and I know he e-mails family members back when they have questions, but sometimes I worry this is broadly symptomatic of America’s obsession with compliance as a whole. As in, I can’t do what’s naturally the right thing because I’d be out of compliance; this same attitude dooms the hiring process every hour. Compliance is important because no one wants to live in a society without any rules or order, but there’s also a functional limit to it, especially when you’re talking about keeping people in good health, and keeping their families abreast of what’s going on.


Ted Bauer