Hello, hello

It’s been so long since I shared any writing here that I need to say hi before diving into my own stuff. Hello. How are you? What’ve you been up to? Are you taking care of yourself?

Speaking of hello

Last week I took my son to a pre-surgery appointment at the hospital. We hadn’t even reached the main lobby and I was feeling anxious and stressed about the upcoming surgery, and frustrated that I had to take him out of school for a visit that we probably could do over the phone. A cloud of general dread was also hanging around mostly because of lingering emotions hanging around from the six weeks we had spent there last year, triggered by the smell of the parking garage and the sound of the music in the elevator hall. Let’s just say I was not my best self.

And then something happened. Sitting on stool off to the side behind the front desk, a janitor was chatting with the receptionist. As we approached, he looked at my son and greeted him by name. “Hey buddy, how are you doing?” I hesitated for a second and the man looked at me and said, “I remember him from when he was here before.” It was really remarkable.

While it’s really impressive that he remembered us, I thought even more about the fact that he said hello at all, and how that made me feel. Saying hello can seem like a token transaction, but really it’s a way to let others know that we see them. My shoulders loosened. I was reminded of the importance of kindness.

Hälsa means both health and say hello

There is a beautiful word in Swedish — hälsa. As a verb, it means to say hello or to greet. As a noun, it means health. The words are connected etymologically from the word hel, which means whole and even perhaps from helig or holy, sacred. To say hello is to wish someone wholeness and wellness. How wonderful to be reminded that all these words are connected! A simple hi can say much more than we think.

Bringing back hello to healthcare — The 10/5 Rule

I remember reading about hospitals in the US launching campaigns to bring back saying hello in health care environments. Inspired by the service industry, they began adopting the 10/5 Rule, or the Hospitality Principle, to help instruct their staff on how to provide courteous service through greeting. The 10/5 basically recommends that when within 10 feet (3 meters) of a guest or patient, staff should smile and make eye contact; when within 5 feet (1.5 meters), staff should say hello. This also means that staff should stop their conversation with each other in preparation to greet.

What does this mean for health care?

The 10/5 Rule, with its roots in companies like Walmart and Disney, can seem like an American attempt to commodify courtesy or institute robotic friendliness. At the same time, I know that my experience as a caregiver and patient matters. When I’m treated well, I also treat others well, which must be better for staff in the long run.

So much of what we’re doing in hospitals these days when it comes to improvement is really expensive. New buildings, new IT systems, more staff. As a parent and patient, I know what feeling invisible, afraid and alone feel like, and sometimes I think healthcare is missing out when it focuses on the big ticket items and skips over delivering common kindness.

Personally this has gotten me very curious about how I say hello, and what it means to those around me. I’m going to be experimenting with how I can sincerely show the people around me that I see them and care about them. I’ll keep you posted. Until then, bye!

Other resources for “Say hello” campaigns

Implementing the 10/5 Rule in Nursing homes

A video from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

Here’s a very enthusiastic training video from ASMMC Medical Center

Reflections from Tufts University professor on the power of saying hello from Psychology Today

Amy Rees Anderson shares background on the evidence of saying hello from Forbes magazine.

Care mapping as reflection and celebration

Since all the publicity around Gabe’s Care Map in Lisa Belkin’s Huffington Post article in January, I’ve heard from many familes who created their own Care Map. Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Cummings of Montana, mom to Charlie and Max, about how she created her own and what it meant to her. I love how she used the process to support her sense of capacity and celebration, or as I’ve often expressed it, going from “Why me?” to “Lucky me!” My grateful thanks to Elizabeth for being willing to share her reflections! 

As a parent of a child with autism, it can feel as though I’m always in a hurry. Between juggling therapy sessions, medical appointments, school carpool, and trying to find those few precious moments to myself, sometimes there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.  When it comes to managing my time online, I’m ruthlessly efficient, but when a family member posted Gabe’s “care map” to my Facebook page recently, I paused. The graphic drew me in because it so beautifully illustrated what I could rarely find enough words to express. I looked closer. And then I clicked “share.”

When I saw Cristin’s work, I felt exhilarated and validated. Without even knowing me, it was as though someone had drawn a picture of my life. To me, the model’s strength lies in its simplicity. Finally, a clear and effective way to communicate the working parts of a daily life very foreign to most outside the special needs community. I knew the care map concept was important, especially in helping practitioners understand the many aspects of care parents of children with autism find themselves managing. I also knew that I had to try making one myself.

At the center of our care map is my son, Charlie, a loving and intelligent six-year-old with ASD. He is surrounded by a large and caring family—his first level of support. From there branch the many specialists, educators, community members, and policy makers who contribute to his care and development. Charged with coordination is the parent of a diagnosed child—armed with little more than love, large three-ring binders, and a laptop—doing her (or his) best to navigate this complicated world of autism.

EC care map

Creating my map helped me reconsider my own role in my son’s care plan.  I have come to see myself as the central facilitator between many separate agencies. With this awareness, I’ve been able to better communicate with my son’s practitioners and more actively embrace the myriad tasks of care management.  The exercise allowed me to step back and view Charlie’s system of care with new perspective.  I found comfort in all these little circles, each representing a different system working to support my son and our family.

Elizabeth with her sons Max and Charlie
Elizabeth with her sons, Max and Charlie

When these support pieces are each in place, all adequately funded and working in partnership, then families become empowered and the image of autism can start to change.  The picture facing the millions of parents struggling with an ASD diagnosis in 2013 doesn’t have to be solely one of loss and heartache.  It can also be the look on my face when, at age 3, my son first recovered the word “mama” in therapy.  It can be the sound in his teacher’s voice when she excitedly tells me about a conversation he has had with a friend in kindergarten.  It is the new perspective these children impart, and the special joys and blessings they share with those who love them.

Thanks Elizabeth! If any other folks out there would like to share their care mapping story, let me know!

Answering questions together

Last weekend I travelled to Washington DC to help create a new model for government-funded medical research. As a parent of a child with special needs who spends most of my time thinking about children with special needs, this 150-person patient summit was one of the most diverse groups of patient stakeholders I’d ever been part of. People representing arthritis, cancer, and kidney disease, people representing geriatric and pediatric issues, people whose medical issues came into their lives as a result of a tragic medical error or because of the body’s natural tendency to try new things.

We were invited there by an innovative organization, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, or PCORI. Funded by the Affordable Care Act, PCORI aims to do research differently: to pair patients and researchers to answer questions that patients and families really care about. The idea of professionals doing work with patients instead of to or for them is reaching higher and higher levels of our nation’s health research priorities. In other words, this is a really big deal!

Even leveraging the collective lived experience of the attendees gathered by PCORI’s committed leadership, creating a research model that supports authentic partnership is going to be tough. Here are a few challenges I can see from my experience supporting patient-(and family)-professional partnerships on a number of levels and some ideas for addressing the challenges:

  • Challenge: Many professionals and patients don’t yet appreciate the innovation that patient-professional partnerships bring.

“We’re all patients,” is a common refrain from professionals when entering into collaboration with patients for the first time. That may be true, yet if that were enough, our health care system would have achieved a level of patient-centeredness that would render initiatives like PCORI unnecessary. Including people who are able work collaboratively while still retaining the unique vantage point of their own stakeholder group is critical to producing ideas innovative enough to handle the challenges our health care system is facing.

Suggestions: While PCORI’s current structure of supplying large grants (nearly $1m each) to a small number of projects has the opportunity to create some huge research results, funding many smaller projects in the form of micro-grants might do more to flood the field of research with thousands of opportunities to experience the “magic moments” of partnership innovation, encouraging real culture change.

  • Challenge: Throughout history, trying to insert a less powerful stakeholder group (patients) into the paradigm of the more powerful one (research) often results in paternalism and tokenism.

It takes a skilled, supported patient to not become acculturated to the professionals’ perspective when they’re sitting in their conference room or in their labs. Patients are often invited to partner and then sent signals that their ideas are unreasonable, off-topic or too aspirational—basically, that they “just don’t understand the reality of the situation,” or the professional’s own paradigm. Eventually, they become tokenized, or present so that the organization can claim credit for including consumers without actually changing.

Suggestions: PCORI must aggressively equalize the power dynamic from the outset. Make parity of participation (equal ratio of patients to all other stakeholders combined on a project) and compensation a requirement—including in their own leadership. Give higher scores to grant applications that offer patient-generated ideas and patient-driven projects. Teach the research community partnership skills. Putting patient groups in charge of awarding the funds would be a radical approach but could even out the power dynamic effectively.

  • Challenge: It’s easy to treat patient engagement as an ancillary function of whatever it is you’re trying to partner around.

When patients are invited into existing professional structures to partner, professionals often think that patients are the only ones who need to learn new things, that cultivating a healthy partnership is the job for a designated patient leader, or that partnering is a value deserving of resources only after the real work is done.

Suggestion: Instead of referring to “patient engagement,” frame the entire concept as “patient-professional partnership,” and make the partnering as important as other work. Accept that both sides will require training, new skills and new capacity to partner successfully. Select researchers and other stakeholders who demonstrate a commitment to partnership. Rather than assign a single person (usually a patient leader) to head up “patient engagement,” partner a patient and professional to model collaboration and manage this function. Similarly, partner patients and professionals as co-leaders throughout the organization to ensure that partnership stays central to the mission of the organization.

  • Challenge: Inadequate compensation creates circumstances in which only educated, engaged, connected patients are likely to participate.

Patients and caregivers are not often salaried employees. Participating in partnering often costs money: for childcare, additional nursing care for themselves or a family member or in lost income. When time is not valued through payment, only a lucky few have the means to participate. Also typical is that these patients’ contributions are devalued because the patients aren’t “regular people”—they’re too activated, navigate the system too well, or aren’t diverse enough.

Suggestion: PCORI can model transactions that will facilitate a more diverse participation by paying participants their time as well as expenses, and for participating in every role in their organization, including as grant reviewers and on their board and in leadership.

  • Challenge: The medical model paradigm favored by medical research, with its focus on body parts, diagnoses and disease labels, may be a source of conflict with patients.

Patients often take a radically more holistic perspective to medicine than researchers or even clinicians. Patients’ health care frame of reference is often a life course approach, a public health mindset and a medical home model blended into one, dismantling the silos of medicine, education, employment, transportation, housing, recreation and spirituality and blurring the lines between their own health and their families’ well-being.

Suggestion: Expand the scope of viable research questions to include non-diagnosis related questions, like identifying key activities of patient-professional partnership, the mechanisms of patient activation, care coordination, shared decision making, the impact of peer-to-peer (patient-to-patient and family-to-family) relationships, and the impact of social determinants on health. Fund projects agnostic to disease label to build a patient-centered research infrastructure: resources for patients on how to conduct research, access for patients on critical functions like an IRB and a venue for publishing, training on how to recruit their own researcher, and resources for all (not just PCORI) researchers on how to partner with patients.

PCORI leadership seems dedicated to doing this right. As a patient and family member, I recognize what a culture shift PCORI’s existence represents.

Do you have a research question that you’d like to submit to PCORI? Would you like to be a PCORI grant reviewer? Do you want to learn more about what PCORI does? Get involved and shape the future of medical research. Together we are better.

The Society for Participatory Medicine’s blog is also collecting  posts from other participants at last week’s event. Check them out.