Following a recent Wall Street Journal feature, “When Patients Share Stories, Health Insights Emerge,” Dell Medical School professors Elizabeth Teisberg and Scott Wallace talk about transforming health care delivery.
The idea of an “Experience Group” is straightforward: bring people who face a common diagnosis or challenge together to discuss the reality of their lives, hopes and aspirations. Lightly facilitate the conversation without overtly guiding where it goes; listen carefully, free of judgment; and let the insights born of first-hand experience illuminate our perspective as we think about ways to improve the care we deliver.
“It’s a deeply compassionate approach, and it works,” says Elizabeth Teisberg, PhD. She and Scott Wallace direct the Value Institute for Health and Care at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin; they developed the Experience Group methodology while working with care delivery organizations around the country.
“The purpose of health care,” she adds, “is to improve people’s health. The Experience Group sessions help us understand what matters most to patients, and offer a confidential environment in which we can discover why it’s often so difficult for patients to follow the advice their clinicians provide.”
The work that would lead to the Experience Group first began more than a decade ago, when the duo helped a hospital design a new model of care for patients with Type 2 diabetes.
“Naturally, the technique has evolved over time,” Wallace explains. “For example, we no longer hold separate sessions for men and women. But the fundamental insights are consistent: it can be really difficult for health care providers to know what happens in the lives of their patients between clinical encounters. When you bring people who share a set of common experiences together, they feel safe saying things to one another that they might not be comfortable saying to their doctor. The technique helps uncover important issues that sometimes even the patients themselves have yet to find a way to articulate, like how providing counselors to help newly diagnosed cancer patients figure out how to break the news of their diagnosis to family members can ease at least some of the burden of what they all acknowledge is probably the worst day of their lives.”
Teisberg and Wallace have used Experience Group sessions to improve care for people with an array of conditions, including cancer, congestive heart disease and obesity. They have also worked with companies large and small to better understand employees’ health needs so that wellness programs and health benefits can be better aligned to the lives that people actually lead. In 2016, they were recruited to Dell Med, where they are using Experience Group sessions and their insights on health care redefinition to assist their colleagues at the school who are creating new care delivery models to address joint pain, women’s health issues, complex primary care, cancer and a range of other conditions.
“When it comes to health and health care, every person has a story,” Teisberg concludes. “Whether it’s their own personal story or that of a loved one, whether it’s a story of triumph and restoration or one of sadness and despair, these stories are all important because they reflect a part of who we are as human beings. We are teaching our colleagues and students how to use the Experience Group as a tool that can help the stories people tell actually guide our clinical decisions and designs. If we listen, we can base the improvements we make in how we deliver care on the real-life experiences of the people for whom we care.”