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help your employees communicate better with their health care providers

February 3, 2011

in health communication

“Despite the fading of paternalism and the awakening of patient autonomy, there is a power imbalance between physicians and patients, with patients sensing their own weakness. This imbalance often leads to the patient’s being afraid to speak up about important concerns that should be brought out and discussed. Thus, interpersonal communication is the key area in which doctors and patients should resolve to improve this year.”

the above excerpt is from an article about how better communication leads to better care. the article plays out a scenario where both the doctor and patient learn to speak up and to listen.

that’s no small thing for either party. doctors are in a rush and are paid only so much for visits. patients feel the time crunch and are vulnerable, both physically—they’re disrobed, after all—and emotionally. throw into the mix the language and knowledge barriers, and you have what a former boss called “a spider’s nightmare.”

companies can help patients—their employees—untangle the web. they can give them the means and the confidence to become engaged, empowered patients and ask smart questions. there are many different techniques that could work. the trick is to know your audience and to provide them with flexible solutions that scale up or down based on knowledge and needs.

for starters, companies can host downloadable checklists on their benefits websites. these checklists can cover questions related to general health (how do i lower my BMI? how often should i see you?) or they can be condition-related (now that i have type 1 diabetes, what do i need to know and do differently?). this simple tool ensures that employees know the questions to ask and gives them a place to take notes. companies can create their own tool or leverage existing ones, like this broad, generic one from the american heart association. many public health sites, such as mayo clinic, also offer suggested questions to ask that are grouped by health concern or condition. the benefit to creating one’s own tool is that it offers companies another opportunity to educate employees about the way their medical plans or other benefits work.

webMD and GE demonstrate a more sophisticated, interactive approach with their better health evaluator. the tool helps employees prepare for a visit to their health care provider by asking the employee a battery of questions. right now, it’s fairly basic. it asks for BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure information. it also asks about general physical activity and family history. from this, it generates a report for the patient and the doctor, as well as the recommended list of questions. patients can see the questions list grow as they answer the survey questions. the evaluator is accessed via GE’s healthymagination site. it’s also tucked deep within webMD. i’m surprised they don’t offer a widget so that others can put the tool on their own site. GE and webMD have plans to create more of these evaluators, and i’d be interested in kicking the tires on them.

better health evaluator

of course, an app or a more expansive mobile-ready site would be useful for those with smartphones. most insurers’ mobile-ready sites offer ways to find providers, cost out pharmaceuticals and get urgent care. unfortunately, they don’t supply tools. it seems a natural to add tools and other aids to these sites. i’d be interested to hear of any company with a mobile-ready site that offers checklists or other support tools. i currently don’t know of any.

to be a confident health care consumer, one must feel comfortable about asking questions and capable of making sound, informed decisions. one needs to know the options and alternatives, dangers and risks. our health care system isn’t equipping patients to take care of themselves, so companies need to step into the void. employees are looking to them to do so.

update (2.7.11)

dr. howard luks (@hjluks) and i spoke about this post. after reading it, he pulled together advice and a list of questions for new patients: http://on.fb.me/i5EB8Z.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Hall February 3, 2011 at 9:57 am

I think it would be interesting for providers to be able to refer newly diagnosed patients to trusted FAQs. When you think about the 7 minute appointment, there typically isn’t a lot of time for Q&A post diagnosis… so being able to refer somebody to trusted answers to common questions around a particular condition could be huge. Extra bonus points for pushing people to condition specific communities to crowdsource tips on living with the condition, if applicable.


fran February 3, 2011 at 10:27 am

it would be great if providers had FAQs at the ready. it would be great if insurers did, too. some do, like BCBS has questions to ask a potential pediatrician. i’m sure others have similar tools. the thing is, employees are looking to their employers for this information. the national business group on health just released their findings from a new survey. they found that 75% of employees use their employers as a source for health information. that’s jumped from 54%. employees need tools that are relevant to their lives and their knowledge level. they need them to be easy to find at the “point of purchase.” digging around a website just won’t cut it. if it was me, i’d want something i could pull up in the doctor’s office when i a) couldn’t understand what the doctor was telling me or b) found out something about my health that i hadn’t anticipated.



Judy Jones February 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Yes, employees are looking to employers for this information. Yet, some employers take a very conservative position. They prefer to avoid delivering materials directly to employees or even encouraging employees to use a given health care provder’s materials. They will raise awareness, however, that the materials are available and provide a link. Still, it’s a very low-keyed appraoch and, therefore, some employees don’t feel engaged. As a communicator, it’s a tough nut to crack!


fran February 3, 2011 at 3:01 pm

judy, i’m curious about what you say here “they prefer to avoid…encouraging employees to use a given health care provider’s materials.” can you comment a little more on that?

but yes, you need a company who sees the value to their employees and the biz.



Judy Jones February 4, 2011 at 11:55 am

Trying to reply via BlackBerry is a little cumbersome. I meant that some employers see the communication of specific health care materials or content as an endorsement of that information. Therefore, the employer may be liable. It’s simply safer to say our medical insurance carrier makes information available about healthy lifestyle choices.


Ray Goldberg February 3, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Anyone providing medical information needs to be sure that it’s right, so we (like most employers) rely on others, who are in the business of providing health care and information. Service providers (e.g., wellness companies, insurers) should improve their services in this way. That would be a better way for most employers to get this information to our colleagues.


fran February 3, 2011 at 5:01 pm

ray, i agree with you. i recently asked an insurer who works with a client why insurance companies are so slow to market with these…jeez, i can hardly call them innovations. the insurers are letting the tech companies whiz by them in many ways, which is too bad, as a central source for information and (some) care would be a pretty nice thing.

still, i think employers can do their bit to better equip employees. it’s in everyone’s best interest. and while i have your attention, i just finished reading atul gawande’s latest piece in the new yorker. you must read it: http://nyr.kr/hgb8S9



judy February 3, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Just clarifying my earlier comment: some companies don’t wish to appear to endorse a particular tool, such as a check list or a BMI calculator. Instead the company’s intranet or newsletter will encourage employees to visit the medical coverage provider’s web site, for instance, for tools and tips to make healthy lifestyle choices. It’s not very compelling.


fran February 4, 2011 at 10:58 am

too true, especially for the smaller shops. the larger shops have tons of information. it’s just not always easy to find or organized for the way a user thinks.



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