Treat me how I want to be treated at that moment without knowing me or how I feel. Seems like a reasonable request, right? Maybe not so much. And still, it’s what our modern —indeed overdue —conversation about patient-centered care demands. Patients and providers are clamoring for better partnerships; they desire to communicate effectively, to understand one another. But we don’t really have great tools and processes in place to support fast, low-effort assessments of learning styles and communication preferences.

Are you visual or aural? Do you need control or want to be directed? Does the nature of a situation affect how you might answer that question? Do you want reenforcement, an opportunity to teach back, an opportunity to question? Do you need time to reflect, or do you make quick decisions? And how many of even clearly know these things about ourselves in our daily lives, let alone when we are dealing with our health and wellbeing.

Imagine this scene: you arrive at your annual physical. Except for the occasional cold, you really only see your physician once a year. How well do you really know each other? You are highly visual and prefer diagrams to lengthy documents. You also like to have all the facts and tend to worry when you feel under informed. You are ok to let someone else plan things, so long as you know the plan. Your physician, in her spare time, is an amature writer. She would much prefer writing to talking, and is often reserved during your interactions. She is of a generation where her training reinforced a paternalistic, I know best style of practice.

You have 25–30 minutes together for your visit. Most of that time is spent doing a physical exam and updating your history. But your physician finds something unexpected, a lump. “Get an MRI and I’ll call you soon when we know more…”

Do things break down?

Do you leave feeling informed or terrified or somewhere in between? Could you describe to your spouse what happened, where the lump is and what it might be?

The challenge with treat me how I want to be treated at that moment without knowing me or how I feel is the unfair burden it places on both parties. How, in a time-restricted environment are two parties supposed to quickly get to know one another’s styles and preferences in a way some spouses even spend years working towards? And, for patients and physicians who have a long-standing relationship, wouldn’t an aid at least help remind you of the other person’s prefernces, so you don’t have to rely on memory or assumptions?

When I worked for a large multi-state health system, we used a commercial tool called Personalsys. Everyone in a management role took an online personality preference test. The computer spit out a brief narrative and color-coded chart. As will not be a surprise to those who have worked with me, I tend to be highly energized by ideas and creative brainstorming and am less driven by deadlines than others (something I’ve had to build systems to help support). Many of my healthcare finance coworkers, at the risk of generalizing, were, conversely, highly structured. They like plans and deadlines and clear objectives. If we had a meeting, someone would see my chart and the spikes in my green creative areas, where they might have spikes in their red structure areas. “Ohhh you’re one of those aren’t you? All creative and loosey-goosey…” And we’d laugh and poke fun at each other’s personality traits and preferences. “yeah, well I bet you’re all tightly wound and obsessed with numbers…”

Personalysis

In reality, the framed charts behind everyone’s desks became a bit of an inside gag. The insecure among the lot would cast their doubts on the efficacy of the hippie tools and new age management practices. But even the doubters knew there was some benefit to understanding how their colleagues work and think. You could walk into someone’s office, and know within seconds how they like to interact and work with other people, and in turn what you might expect from them.

There are other examples of these types of tools which are being deployed increasingly in large corporate settings. The DISC assessment, for instance, looks at how a person feels about control using the vernacular of dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. And what discussion of personality inventories would be complete without a mention of my personal favorite, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (I’m an ENFP for the inquiring minds out there)?

DISC

Visual and narrative aids like Personalysis or the DISC assessment, are not commonly a part of patient-provider interactions. But why shouldn’t they be used? Imagine if every patient had a card with a visual indicator on one side, in a short narrative about their preferences and styles on the other. What if every doctor had a similar tool framed on the wall of their exam room and office? Patient styles and preferences would be stored in medical records and patients could learn about their physicians’ styles online before visits.

Now imagine this scene: you arrive at the emergency room with chest pains and shortness of breath. You are scared, but not in dire straits. You are taken back, immediately, into an exam bay. A physician comes in, sees your chart and knows right away that you like to be in control of situations. You are aural and work better with big pictures than minutia. How might their communication style change to meet your needs, where you are, at that exact moment? Perhaps, in stead of patting you on the shoulder and saying “you are going to be fine dear…” they might instead offer “Ok, we’re going to move quickly, my concern is a blockage, so we’re going to get you to the cath lab, you’ll remain conscious, this is a great team who has done more of these than anyone else in town, after the cath, we’ll know more. Is that plan ok with you?”

To be fair, I suspect the later example is more typical of modern physician communication styles than my patronizing former example. But there is still room for a tool to help aid the process.

We need something quick, easy to understand and effective. It should be a two-way tool, allowing both patients and providers to quickly understand each other and meet in the middle. If this idea of participatory shared decision making is to work, it’s going to need some aids. The good news is some examples already exist. The folks at Diagram Office, a New York-based design firm have created some fantastic conversation aids around shared decision making.

Diagrams OpenIDEO submission

I’m still looking for a solution which fits upstream of decision making. I’m suggesting something which exists as the very first step between a patient and provider, before a word is ever spoken.

Anyone have a prototype?