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Tag: Teamwork

Spring Training for Health Care Teams


Two years ago, I wrote a piece in HBR called “Turning Doctors into Leaders,” which began with the sentence “The problem with health care is people like me” — that is, physicians who had been trained in an era when excellence in medicine was defined by what you did as an individual. In the short period since, the concept that medicine is actually a team sport has become increasingly accepted. Because of medical progress, there is too much to know, too much to do, and too many people involved to give patients excellent care, unless we get better at working in teams. A lot better.

Sounds good — but it’s a lot easier to write or talk about than to do. In fact, organization and collaboration are unnatural acts in much of medicine, where payment is still fee-for-service and the culture of individualism still dominates. Progress is being made — more in some regions and at some delivery systems than others. In this post, I will assess that progress by giving grades in various key functional areas akin to those that sportswriters are currently giving baseball teams as they get ready to break spring training. Like those sportswriters, I will try to blend optimism and realism.

Ability to put a team on the field C. The payment system actually is changing, and ambitious pilots like Medicare’s Accountable Care Organization contracts are underway. In these new contracts, providers share heavily in savings and losses. And, as a provider, I can tell you that we really hate to lose (i.e., bear financial losses for care we have given).

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Gregory House, MD, RIP

Dr. Gregory House hung up his stethoscope and cane for the last time last night and shuffled off into eternal life in the Land of Reruns. House — the brilliant, misanthropic, drug addicted, my-way-or-the-highway physician — has been an entertaining presence on FOX television for the past eight years. I enjoyed the series and even learned a little medicine. I also took some pride in the show, since House was television’s first hospitalist, a term I helped coin and now the fastest-growing specialty in modern medicine.

But as entertaining as he was, House was a throwback to an era in which the antisocial tendencies of some physicians were seen as irrelevant to their doctoring. As medical leaders strive to redefine “the great doctor” of today, House’s departure is both timely and welcome.

When I went to medical school in the 1980s, many of us valued nothing more than our autonomy. We saw medicine as an individual, not a team, sport, and interpreted professionalism as unwavering advocacy for our patients. While this was often healthy and noble, in some cases it crossed the line into obnoxiousness, even rage. (Today, we call doctors who cross this line “disruptive physicians.” Dr. House would certainly qualify.)

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Teamwork Training in Healthcare: More Than Just Kumbaya

One of the central tenets of the patient safety movement is that modern medicine is a team sport. Unfortunately, its players – particularly physicians – were trained and socialized to be free-spirited individualists. We need the Celtics of the 80s; what we have is a collection of young John McEnroes.

While this theory has been generally accepted, there is less agreement regarding how to change things. When I speak about safety culture, many of the questions I’m asked focus on how we are going to train future generations of medical students and residents to be “different” (translation: not like the prima donnas I have to deal with in my daily practice). It’s as if people are fatalistic about the ability to transform the culture of today’s practitioners; perhaps the next crop of physicians will do, and be, better.

Those of us who aren’t resigned to a biological solution to this problem have been enthusiastic about teamwork training and crew resource management programs for years. These programs are modeled on similar programs introduced in aviation in the 1980s after it was discovered that several tragic crashes had their roots in remarkably poor teamwork and communication. The programs bring together multidisciplinary groups to learn habits of clear communication and teamwork, and to be trained in the use of tools to employ when the going gets tough – such as, say, when a flock of Canadian geese flies into your jet’s engines.

Five years ago, with funding from the Moore Foundation, we implemented such a program on the medical services at UCSF and at two nearby hospitals. Unfortunately, while the program’s participants believed that it made care safer, our relatively small numbers of patients and providers left us unable to show improvements on hard outcomes like mortality. Other studies have had similarly mixed results – enough to keep the candle burning for those of us who believe that culture is critical and that teamwork training is the likeliest way to improve it, but not enough to catalyze a national movement for more. And, because it is expensive (the outlays for the trainers are only a small fraction of the costs – the real costs are the lost productivity of scores of nurses and doctors taking a day away from their regular jobs), teamwork training has mostly remained a novelty, implemented by a few cutting edge institutions and true believers.

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