With ‘experience groups,’ patients share stories of their health challenges

Oak Street patients sit at table
Experience groups bring together patients with common health problems. Image: Oak Street Health

If they hadn’t brought together patients and listened to their discussion, a New Hampshire medical center might not have learned that obese patients are more receptive to advice when practitioners also have weight issues. And a North Carolina health system might not have realized parents with children who have pediatric asthma need clearer education to increase their confidence to effectively manage the condition.

Those potential barriers to improved patient health emerged during experience groups that bring together patients with common health problems—from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to metastatic breast cancer—to discuss their condition, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“People are willing to discuss things very frankly when they are in a roomful of people who share their experiences,” Elizabeth Teisberg, a professor at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, Austin, told the newspaper. She developed the experience group methodology about a decade ago, along with Scott Wallace, co-director of the medical school’s Value Institute for Health and Care, to learn from patients how they are dealing with their health conditions.

The groups can lead to surprising results and health improvements by addressing patients’ unmet needs that may be obstacles to good health, according to the article. Experience groups differ from the typical focus group intended to get patients’ opinions about existing services, and instead ask about the experiences they have at home and work coping with health issues.

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Trained facilitators meet for 60 to 90 minutes with small groups of patients, asking questions to generate discussion among the participants. The facilitators then tend to step back and let the stories flow. Sessions are confidential and are not recorded so patients can speak freely, the report said. Facilitators try to draw patterns based on the discussion, Teisberg said.

Health insurer Humana has also used the model to develop team fitness activities to help employees improve their health and fitness levels.

While much of the focus in healthcare today is on quality measurements and changes in reimbursement models, the best healthcare results really come about when the patient-doctor relationship is built on trust. Listening skills are a big part of that.