Professors at Dell Medical School bring new way of patient-to-physician communication

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Scott Wallace

Patients are not as comfortable disclosing health disparities to their physicians as they are with other patients experiencing similar disparities, an issue two Dell Medical School professors hope to address. 

The professors, Scott Wallace and Elizabeth Teisberg, are the managing director and executive director of the school’s Institute for Value in Health and Care. They developed the idea of Experience Groups, which allow patients with similar health issues to sit together and discuss health challenges, about a decade ago. The group size ranges from six to 10 participants with two facilitators who oversee the group, take notes and pose questions to guide the group toward discussion. 

“Often time, (health care) services are designed from a physician’s point of view, not designed from a patient’s point of view,” Wallace said. “We use these Experience Group sessions to bring groups of patients who share a set of circumstances together to talk about what is it like to live with their condition.”

Wallace said Experience Groups have been conducted at other hospitals, and they hope to bring the idea to the Dell Medical School soon.

“Most hospitals have patient advisory groups (with a mixed group of patients), and what they talk about is parking, food and whether the televisions worked and whether the nurses have been nice to them, because that’s the only thing they have in common,” Wallace said.

Deborah Kennedy, who has facilitated about seven Experience Groups, said the groups provide clinicians with valuable information about their patients they might not have known before. 

“As clinicians, we automatically think we have the answer,” Kennedy said. “If we don’t, we like to at least postulate what might be a solution.”

The Experience Groups Kennedy oversaw involved people struggling with their weight. Kennedy said she learned to be a part of the background of the discussion and to let the participants speak for themselves, which showed her that having people with similar issues come together can enlighten physicians on issues that might not have come up in a clinical setting.

“One of the things (the patients) actually said to me several times is, ‘We don’t want a skinny person telling us what to do,’” Kennedy said. “They felt like (the physicians) had no understanding.”

Wallace said he and Teisberg decided to share their idea with the Dell Medical School in order to directly help the community, one of the school’s core missions.

“It was a really appealing idea to come down here and actually be a part of creating a health care system that was committed to improving the health of the people in the community,” Wallace said. “We described it as (taking) on responsibilities of improving the health of our neighbors, and that’s a phenomenal opportunity for someone who is interested in dramatically changing health care.”

School Dean Clay Johnston said the Experience Groups provide an innovative outlook on how medicine should be provided for the patients at the school.

“Experience Groups are about people at an individual level — what they’re experiencing, where they want to go and what they want to do with their lives,” Johnston said. “They demonstrate the kind of innovation that the school is already catalyzing in a variety of communities and settings throughout Austin and Travis County.”