Exchanging Ideas That Help to Improve the Healthcare System – The Role of Patient Family Advisory Councils

Many traditional businesses regularly and systematically work to understand and improve the experience of their clients and customers. These efforts may include surveys, focus groups and other activities geared toward obtaining feedback that can be put to use in improving the overall operation.

In this respect, healthcare has lagged behind other industries. Fortunately, this is beginning to change, thanks in large part to something known as a Patient Family Advisory Council.

A Patient Family Advisory Council is a group of patients and family members who work with hospitals and physician practices to create opportunities for shared decision making, thus improving both care and the care experience. Although these councils have been in existence nationally for some time, it’s only recently that Massachusetts has passed a law requiring the establishment of these groups in all hospitals.

My own experience

The Patient Family Advisory Council of which I am a member, was formed in 2012 by a large primary care and specialty practice to represent the patient’s voice. Our goal is to create a structure that facilitates patients sharing ideas that change the way care is delivered and, in the process, improve patient safety and quality.

As we’ve gotten to know each other and work together, physicians and administrators have requested our feedback on patient-centered educational materials and new practices being contemplated. We have even become an integral part in improving the workflow and quality of individual practices.

The Virginia Mason Vision

Our organization utilizes what’s known as the Virginia Mason Production System (VMPS). In short, the system is used to methodically remove every barrier between the provider and the perfect patient experience. Wow, a revolutionary thought!

The VMPS requires honest self reflection on the part of a given practice and a willingness to adopt a new paradigm: One that dismisses the idea that errors and defects are inevitable and, instead, focuses on creating the perfect patient experience.

A key to accomplishing this is to understand that the staff who do the work are aware of the problems that are in the way – and to recognize that they have the best solutions. And, since our PFAC members are patients of this practice, we also have a first-hand view of where and how improvements might be made.

For example, while working on the redesign of a physician office and the office flow process that accompanies it, we learned that the waiting area space does not need to be ample – provided that wait time is minimized. Instead of focusing on things like more TVs and better magazines, we’re focused on reducing the need for these in the first place!

Why does all this matter?

First, because it’s good for the people involved. More satisfied customers and more satisfied providers benefit from the reduction of waste and the improvement of care.

But it’s also important as the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented and the health care system is realigning into Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) and new delivery methods of primary care known as Patient Centered Medical Homes (PCMH). These changes focus on quality and the cost of care, both of which are used in new reimbursement models.

Consider the example of readmissions to a hospital. Now, when this occurs within 30 days of discharge, the hospital feels a financial impact. This is forcing hospitals to re-focus their efforts as they now have more “skin in the game” and to develop improved discharge planning procedures. Who better to help with that than patients – members of the Patient Family Advisory Council?

How to get involved

Getting involved in my practice’s PFAC has been both informative and tremendously rewarding. I love helping to improve the system!

If you’d like to get involved as well, start by speaking with your physician and/or the practice manager at your practice. Find out if it is a Patient Centered Medical Home and ask how patient feedback is being employed. A Patient Family Advisory Council may already be in place or being considered. Ask how volunteers are recruited, what the commitment is and what the process is for becoming involved.

Healthcare continues to change quickly and Patient Family Advisor Councils are playing an important role in ensuring that they change for the better. Don’t hesitate to get involved in your community today.