Educational Events Explore Workplace Mental Health, The Patient Experience

by | Mar 30, 2023 | Education

Mental health in the workplace and the growing consumerization of healthcare are timely and important topics for medtech innovators. Fortunately for us, and for our extended innovation community, we had the chance to hear presentations on both topics as Lunch & Learn educational events in March. Our deepest thanks to Alison Hwong, MD, Ph.D.,UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, for her presentation on mental wellness in the workplace, and to Christine Cunningham, chief experience officer, El Camino Health, for talking to us about incorporating the patient experience in medtech innovation.      

Below are some highlights from each:

Mental Health in the Workplace

Feeling stressed at work is an increasingly prevalent experience that can lead to burnout and even depression. These two mental health conditions are different although sometimes overlapping; symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, feeling disconnected from work, and experiencing concentration and memory problems, while depression generally involves low self-esteem, the inability to feel pleasure, and intense sadness. 

“Workplace stress significantly affects performance, resulting in missed days at work and a reduction in productivity,” said Dr. Hwong. “And while many people feel that they are alone in experiencing workplace stress, the reality is that many people are struggling.” She noted that even before the pandemic, studies found that nearly one third of workers reported a stress level they described as “high to unsustainably high.”

Burnout – prevalent and contagious

Post-pandemic, burnout is even more prevalent, with three out of five US employees reporting symptoms in 2021. What’s more, it is contagious. “There is a myth that burnout is an individual problem, but it is everyone’s problem, and requires more than individual interventions to address,” said Dr. Hwong.  

Top strategies for addressing burnout in the workplace include reassessing demand, increasing individual control, and providing support. “Reducing the demands on an employee involves determining whether there are some tasks that could be automated or delegated, and refocusing on the tasks that only that individual can do,” she explained.  Increasing control is about improving an individual’s sense of autonomy, increasing their flexibility, and helping them set boundaries – like being clear that responses to emails are not expected on nights, weekends, or holidays.  Support can be provided in a variety of ways, from formal support from coaches or mentors, to informal peer groups that discuss common experiences and provide helpful information and strategies to address shared challenges.

Dr. Hwong also shared tips for preventing burnout, which include getting exercise, eating a balanced diet, practicing good sleep habits, and asking for help when needed. 

“You are not your work,” she reinforced. “You can feel passionate about what you do, and accountable to your employees and funders. But you also need some separation from the outcomes,” she said. 

The Patient Experience in MedTech Innovation

As the chief experience officer at El Camino Health, Christine Cunningham is deeply focused on meeting and exceeding patient expectations that are very different today than they were even a generation ago. “Healthcare has become a commodity,” she said. “It’s something we shop for.” She describes this new attitude towards healthcare as consumerism, which refers to a patient’s ability to make their own decisions about care and treatment. 

“Patients have a right to know what treatments are available and what they involve before agreeing to have them done. They also have the right to choose which hospitals and doctors they want for treatment – and they are,” she said.  The two primary factors driving the trend towards consumerism are increased competition as patients can choose not only among traditional providers but also among digital options and retail clinics; and an increase in patient expectations that comes from comparing the healthcare experience with other consumer experiences. 

Facilitating these trends is the digital revolution. “Approximately 70% of consumers go online to look for information about care, look at online reviews before selecting a physician, prefer to book appointments and pay bills online, and want a mobile app to manage their well-being and interact with their provider,” said Christine. “And more than half are interested in using telehealth rather than having a traditional office visit.” The rise in consumerism has led to an increased demand for transparency and cost-effectiveness in healthcare. It has also led hospitals, and innovators, to renew their focus on the patient experience.

The Healthcare Experience

According to Christine, there are many factors that go into creating an optimal patient, or as she prefers to say, “human experience.” Some are universal, like convenience and short appointment wait times, while others are more personalized. “For example, some people want to know everything about their health, while others just want to know what the bottom line is,” she said; and it’s up to the provider to make sure they understand the patient’s desires. Moreover, the healthcare experience is now being benchmarked against other consumer experiences, like making retail purchases. “People are saying, ‘If I can track my Amazon package in real time, why do I have to wait two weeks for you to tell me whether I have cancer?’” she said.  

As a result, patients today expect their healthcare experience to be all of the following: empathetic, personalized, always on – meaning you can interact with your healthcare system at any time of the day or night, empowering in terms of patient choice, frictionless, simplified, and transparent. Looking back, Christine says she finds it astonishing that healthcare providers have historically felt that it was acceptable to meet any lesser set of standards.  “Healthcare is the ultimate service industry. It is the ultimate industry of consumerism and we need to catch up,” she said. 

One additional factor that goes into creating that optimal experience is of course, the mental health and wellness of her providers and staff. “Our team actually comes first,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, if the care team isn’t in a good place, they can’t provide the best experience to patients.” 

Designing with the User in Mind

One of the most important lessons for entrepreneurs in the audience is that it is essential to understand who they are selling to and what that customer’s problems are. Accordingly, the changing needs and expectations that Christine sees in her work are important for entrepreneurs to consider as they begin to design their products. To that end, Christine offered innovators the following tips:

  • Make sure that you pay close attention to the user experience in your product design. Does this make it easier for a busy healthcare provider to do their job? For a patient to use and adhere to?
  • Think about whether you can help providers attract patients. If a technology is novel enough, patients may seek the providers who offer it. 
  • Today’s healthcare consumers not only want health care to be affordable and personalized, they are also seeking out the most convenient way to access and engage with the healthcare system. “Some may choose convenience over quality – so we need to provide both,” Christine said. 
  • Remember that the patient care process begins online, and that healthcare is moving away from hospitals to where we live and work. “Can your technology be tailored to fit into this new paradigm?” she asked. 

One of the most fundamental shifts involves defining patients not simply in terms of their immediate medical needs, but seeing them as a whole person and trying to provide care that takes into consideration their other roles and priorities. “We started something at El Camino Health called ‘What Matters to You?’ explained Christine. “It’s an effort to look at the whole person in the context of their life and community and goals, and try to provide care that meets all of their needs.”  She continued, “So it’s not just Christine, the kidney patient in room 20, it’s Christine, the kidney patient who’s a mom, a wife, and a worker, and who likes to hike.”

She concluded, “Our goal as a healthcare provider is to put the patient – and our care teams – at the center of everything we do. Innovators need to do something similar, designing with provider and patient/consumer in mind.”  

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