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Putting the patient at the center of Air Force Medicine

  • Published
  • By Peter Holstein
  • SGL
The Air Force Medical Service is committed to incorporating patients’ needs, preferences and values into their care.

This model emphasizes patient centeredness, and that starts with creating a culture where everyone a patient interacts with in the health care space is listening to their concerns.

“The days when your doctor says ‘here’s what’s wrong with you, here’s what you need to do,’ are over,” said Col. (Dr.) John Oh, chief of preventive medicine for the Air Force Medical Support Agency. “Nowadays it’s all about drawing out from patients ‘what do you think?’ or ‘what are your values?’ and incorporating those views into their care.”

The AFMS is driving this message to every doctor, nurse, technician and administrator in its 76 health facilities worldwide. This means not being afraid to challenge the current way of doing things, to change processes when necessary, and look for the root causes of errors.

Dr. Oh acknowledges that this process isn’t complete yet, and that not every individual in the AFMS has bought into this model yet.

“We have the strategic patience to understand this won’t happen overnight and could be the work of years.” said Oh. “We all have blind spots, but if we create a culture that welcomes input from patients, we can reframe the provider’s conversation with their patient from ‘what’s the matter?’ to ‘what matters to you?’. That’s how we will build an AFMS culture that welcomes patient’s voices.”

The AFMS is part of a major transition in how Americans receive health care. Two decades ago, patients didn’t have access to the kind of information they now have at their fingertips. The development of smartphones and wearable technology has the potential to revolutionize how we collect and use health data.

“When I finished my training in internal medicine 22 years ago, we didn’t have things like the internet or smartphones,” said Oh. “Patients nowadays are much better informed, and they are doing things like self-monitoring their sleep, diet and exercise.”

This information empowers patients, especially when supported by their health provider. Doctors and other health providers are no longer the gatekeepers of health care information, and patients can educate themselves better than ever before.

“That’s the changing nature of health care,” said Oh. “When a patient comes to me with information they downloaded off the internet, the first thing I say is good job, because I’m glad they are taking interest in their health care. The more people are engaged and involved in their care, the better the outcome will be.”

Another critical component of patient centeredness is creating a culture of feedback. Feedback from patients and families about what they do or do not like about their health care experience is a valuable tool for the AFMS. This includes opportunities like the Joint Outpatient Experiences Surveys, or JOES, or the Interactive Customer Evaluations, or ICE, cards, but also some additional engagements that Air Force hospitals and clinics now offer.

“Take advantage of opportunities to provide facility commanders some feedback,” said Oh. “Whether it’s a town hall, focus group, volunteering for a patient and family partnership council, social media… speak up and ask questions, not just to your provider, but also to leadership!”

“We want our patients to feel comfortable to speaking up and tell us what’s important to them,” says Oh. “The healthcare we deliver should be oriented around the patient’s needs, preferences and values.”