Patient education programs have been around for a long time, but typically these programs have been geared toward only the chronically ill and those that needed extensive management. In this era of the Patient-Centered Medical Home patients and insurers are looking more to physician practices to provide effective patient education in all aspects of their care. In fact, many insurance companies are actively measuring physicians’ performance on quality metrics. Current accountable care models factor in patient utilization of emergency rooms, hospital visits, and prescriptions, and attribute that cost to the patient’s primary-care doctor, which may also include specialties such as cardiology.
So what does this mean to your practice? With more accountability comes the need to manage patient populations more effectively to be able to hold the line on costs. If you are not doing a good job in actively engaging patients to “self manage” their own care, and utilizing lower-cost opportunities for managing your patients’ care, then you may soon find yourself failing to achieve a targeted level of care and cost utilization, and that will cost you money.
Creating and implementing effective programs
The most effective education programs are those that are customized to each patient. But don’t let that daunt you. You can define general care plans and then customize those on a patient-by-patient basis.
• First, determine what conditions to tackle. Get to know your patient population. What are the most complex and costly conditions that you manage? What conditions apply to the most patients across your practice? Hone in on those areas to begin with, set up and fine-tune a program or two, and then you can replicate successful programs across your entire patient base from there.
• Second, assess your patients’ needs. Determine what actual resources and help is needed by your particular patients. Do not hesitate to poll your patients by asking them directly what their specific needs and challenges for self-management may be. If you make assumptions about your patients’ needs, you may only meet the goals of a small part of your population, which can be counterproductive and result in poor compliance with the program. In addition to assessing needs, assess the challenges (such as lack of family support) and skills (Internet use, reading ability etc.) of your patients and build a program that can adequately meet them where they are coming from.
• Third, use what’s available. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are lots of good materials, courses, and programs available. It’s OK to adopt a program you like; just make sure to thoroughly review all of the material and adjust the sections, ideas, concepts, and so forth to fit with your specific patients’ needs and your style of practicing medicine.
• Fourth, communicate effectively and set small targets. Let your patients know about these programs and educate them about what they are expected to do. Priorities should be clearly stated, mutually understood, and mutually agreed upon, and patients should be provided with information about what to do if they go “off the plan.” That will help to keep them empowered and engaged in their own care, and keep them communicating effectively with you and the office when there is a problem. Keep the goals small and manageable to begin with and don’t overload the patient with information. Tip sheets and goal targets should be the core of the program; then add in more information as the patient progresses. Keeping material simple, clear, and to the point will help with comprehension.
Setting one target per visit is a manageable way for patients to begin working a program. For example, set a new diabetes patient the goal of reducing his intake of sweets to three desserts per week, and provide a cheat sheet of desserts that are diabetes-friendly to choose from on the plan. At the next visit, you identify a new goal to add to the first one, and repeat. While it may take a while to turn a patient’s health around, research confirms that small, incremental changes are much more likely to be lasting changes, so think in terms of a marathon rather than a sprint to the finish line.
Lastly, make the plans, goals, materials, and office staff highly available to the patient. Post the educational material on your site, mail follow-up materials to patients, place outbound follow-up calls and/or e-mails to patients to check on how they are doing between visits. These touch points matter and can be the difference between a successful program and good patient engagement or wasted effort and time.
And don’t forget, as of January 2015, you can now bill a monthly, per patient code for chronic care coordination, CPT 99490. Just make sure to check the guidelines for this code to adhere to the description of services before you bill it.