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How Henry Ford Health System Is Prioritizing Clinician Communication

Analysis  |  By Debra Shute  
   July 28, 2016

The health system has appointed a director of physician communication to bolster patient satisfaction scores.

Patient satisfaction matters, not just to patients, but inevitably to healthcare organizations' bottom lines as momentum builds toward publicizing scores and linking them to reimbursement.

At the core of most patient dissatisfaction are problems related to communication, says Kelley Dillon, director of physician communication and peer support at Henry Ford Health System, a recently created role aimed at helping clinicians become better communicators.

In fact, the system's entire department of physician communication and support is just a few months old.

Calling herself a "department of one," Dillon says she is building a team that will help Henry Ford build on its early success with communications training for clinic service representatives and medical assistants.

"These are our first-impression folks when you walk into a clinic," Dillon says. "Their scores have gone up and are continuing to sustain because of all our ongoing checking and accountability measures, such as mystery shopping and auditing, to make sure they're doing what they're taught and they're being recognized for it."

Henry Ford still has work to do, however, in improving its overall patient satisfaction scores and the likelihood that patients will recommend the organization.

As Dillon's title implies, the next phase of these efforts will center around physician communication.

Side-By-Side Support

One of the primary teaching tools being used at Henry Ford is a physician shadowing program, in which Dillon or another trained individual sits as a "fly on the wall" during a patient visit and marks down "yes/no" observations about a standard set of physician behaviors, such as whether the physician apologized for any delay.

The physician then receives a confidential report and private coaching referred to as a "shadow summary conversation."

Most often, this meeting is enlightening to physicians, whose good intentions don't always translate to the patient through their behavior. Physicians tend to think clinically and ask closed-ended questions, Dillon notes, whereas patients tend to speak in open-ended ways.

Part of what makes these conversations effective is that they occur no more than a few days after the patient encounter, when it's still fresh in the physician's and the shadower's mind, says Dillon. "I can say, 'if you do that more consistently, it could move this question here that they're rating you poorly on.'"

Creating Physician Partners

With a solid background in leader development and experience handling patient complaints, Dillon's feedback is generally well received by physicians. But to maintain the program's credibility, she wants more physicians coaching one another.

"By the end of the year, my next step is to get a cadre of internal senior staff physicians who have consistently scored high and see if I can get some of them to be certified as peer coaches to work with consistently low-scoring physicians on sharing best practices," Dillon says.

A key challenge in finding these physician partners, however, is in creating stipends to compensate them for lost clinic time. "Their time is money," she says. "So I have to figure out a way to incentivize them to help me because I really believe the answers are internal. I don't think we need to go out and purchase programs."

Speaking of money, as of this year, Henry Ford's senior staff physicians now have 15% of their bonus tied to whether they reach their communication targets based on patient perception.

"That has never happened before at Henry Ford," Dillon notes. [The bonus has] made it impossible to ignore."

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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