Patience for Patients (and Providers)

Tom Colen


I have never felt more unqualified than when I was interviewing a Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Group (RWJUMG) doctor preparing a presentation on postpartum depression for a conference in Romania. For one, I am not a medical expert: the entire field of obstetrics and gynecology is foreign to me. Moreover, I was interviewing him as part of a design thinking project to help him and his department improve communication between patients and providers, and I only have two weeks of experience with design thinking. Adding to my discomfort, the problem of patient-provider communication in healthcare is so multifaceted that it can be difficult to fully grasp, let alone alleviate.

As an example, the doctor I was interviewing and his medical student were talking about the history of postpartum depression as a diagnosis. The medical student discussed how pivotal celebrities like Brooke Shields were in coming forward about their struggles with postpartum depression and how that was the first time doctors took postpartum depression seriously. The doctor retorted, “That’s the problem! We only listened to the celebrities. We heard it all the time time here, but we just …” and then he made a kicking motion to symbolize booting them out.

However, in coming to terms with both the vastness of the issue and my complete inexperience with it, I came to realize that there’s no way I alone can solve any of the issues with patient-provider communication. But in working together with both my amazing Tiger Challenge team and the team at RWJUMG, I can leverage my outside perspective to look at angles most doctors might not consider. For example, as an outsider, I more easily sympathize with the patient and can honestly evaluate the waiting room experience.

Moreover, in my observation experience, I realized that all of the doctors are so amazing and intelligent, and they try to be the best doctors they can be all the time. They are all extremely invested in improving patient-provider communication and regularly attend conferences and read papers on how they may improve.

However, they see so many patients in a day and are so burdened with intensive work that the fatigue from all of their daily tasks is what can contribute to suboptimal patient-provider communication. In fact, not only the doctors, but the entire staff is individually fantastic at communicating with patients during less frantic periods. Yet, breakdowns with patients occur when either the staff member is fatigued from a crazy amount of busywork or the patient is agitated from waiting for their appointment or some other factor. Therefore, I felt, and still feel, that our main focus as a team should not be on correcting methods of communication, but rather on reengineering the system so as to allow all members of the RWJUMG team to be their best selves..

Once I made this connection, the problem of patient-provider communication at RWJUMG was no longer a medical problem or something so foreign, but was simply a human issue that any human can help tackle. Therefore, after brainstorming this past week, my team and I were able to generate five ideas that focused on reducing patient and provider fatigue, which we then presented to the department. We are moving forward with one tentative idea: an appointment card that eases communication between the front desk and the providers and helps providers ensure patients understand the recommendations for their at-home care. In just these two weeks, I have become much more confident in myself both as a design thinker and as a person. I am looking forward to where we go from here!