Thursday, October 15, 2015

Nuka & Organizational Ethics

Yesterday morning an email with the subject heading: "Strong Patient-Provider Relationships Drive Healthier Outcomes" appeared in my in-basket.  I might have thought - "ho hum, been there/know that" and deleted the message, except that it came from the Harvard Business Review. I was curious. What made business folks interested in a topic that every seasoned primary care clinician has known about for years?

It turned out that the authors have been doing  what business schools do so well - studying exemplary primary care systems as a basis for developing teaching cases. What struck me in the Business School findings was that the outstanding organizations they were reporting on had not simply preached about the importance of strong clinician-patient relationships: they had engineered the organizations themselves to encourage and facilitate excellent relationships.

In our teaching of medical students and other health professionals we emphasize the values and behavior patterns of individuals. This is an important starting point for health care ethics. But as the discussion of the Southcentral Foundation in Alaska demonstrated, a properly designed and managed organization can point clinicians in the right direction and make it easier for us to get there.

In the 1990s, Southcentral Foundation, well-described in an excellent article by Katherine Gottlieb, president and CEO, looked into its heart and reconceptualized its mission as being about relationships:
Alaska Native leadership recognized that the core product is something bigger than just tests, diagnoses, pills and procedures. It is about human beings and relationships – messy, human, longitudinal, personal, trusting, informing, respecting and accountable relationships...If a practice or organization really believes that the core product is relationship – that is, partnering to make a difference over time – a fundamental change is required. Where money and time are spent, what work staff members do, who is hired and how staff are trained – every action is intentionally designed to optimize relationships.
Southcentral calls its approach the "Nuka System of Care." "Nuka" is a native Alaskan word meaning "big living things." Gottlieb describes four key ideas driving the "big living" Nuka system:
  1. "The customer drives everything." Southcentral thinks of those it serves as "customer/owners." The SCF approach goes well-beyond the current buzzword - "patient centered care" - which often connotes an empathic attitude but not redesign of services to meet patient preferences.
  2. "All customers deserve to have a health care team they know and trust." It's easy to endorse this principle. What distinguishes SCF is the actions they take to facilitate trusting relationships, not simply their words. Words are cheap. Making the sentiment a reality takes sustained work over time.
  3. "Customers should face no barriers when seeking care." 75-80% of the appointments are for same-day care. That says it all!
  4. "Staff members and supporting infrastructure are vital to success." Again, what counts is well planned, consistent devotion to this aim at all levels of the organization.
The crucial insight arising from the Harvard Business School project, which is being conducted in collaboration with Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School, is that organizations are moral actors, just as individuals are. Strong clinical relationships promote trust and health. In a health system in which organizations play an ever increasing role, we need to focus on and strengthen the moral behavior or organizations as well as individuals.

[For readers who want to delve further into the concept of organizations as moral actors, see this article by my friend David Ozar, an early leader in thinking about the ethics of organizations.]

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