Harvard Public Health & Tech Conference: What Does the Patient Want?

The following is a guest post from Jodi Sperber regarding last week’s Harvard School of Public Health conference.

Patient centered care is a concept that seems so easy to understand, yet we debate time and time again what it means, and how it should be defined. On April 25, the Harvard School of Public Health held their third annual Public Health and Technology Conference in Boston, and this topic was once again a point of difference.

A one-day event, the conference sought to cover two general topic areas: improving the quality of care via electronic health record (EHR) adoption, and innovate approaches to engage patients and providers. Speakers included David Blumenthal, Helen Burstin, Joseph Kvedar, Dana Safran, John Halamka, and Karen Bell; highly knowledgeable and experienced sources when it comes to health and information technology (HIT).

In the opening keynote, David Blumenthal made several points addressing the divide between patient centered care and patient directed care. Each time it had less to do with developing new technology (perhaps the easier part) and more to do with changing a culture (much, much harder). He summed it up nicely when he said, “It isn’t just a software problem; it’s a humanware problem.” I agree – this is as much an organizational culture change as anything else.

With Meaningful Use regulations in place and providers registering to be counted as meaningful users (per Dr. Blumenthal, 36,000 providers have registered for EHR incentives as of March 31), EHR adoption rates should rise. The expectation is that this will have a significant impact on patient care.

However, is EHR adoption enough to achieve truly patient centered care? With peer support providing additional and necessary support to motivate, provide accountability, and help with knowledge sharing, I was surprised to hear very little regarding ways social networking or other forms of the social web were being incorporated (even considered) into the HIT systems represented by panelists. Additionally, patients were not a presence at any time throughout the day, either on panels or within the audience (yes, I know we are all patients… I am referring to patient advocates who explicitly represent the patient voice). Any mentions of patient centered care were targeted specifically at the formal mechanisms of health care (office visits, hospital stays, dispensing of drugs).

I was left wondering how future developments will enable patients to talk to each other, not just to individual systems being created by vendors.

During a question and answer interchange, and audience member challenged how patient centeredness was defined, asking “How would patients define it?” This seems to be at the core of the conversation if we want patients to embrace new habits, and a new approach to healthcare delivery.


Jodi Sperber is a doctoral student at the Heller School at Brandeis University, focusing on the intersection of social media and health. She has been involved in public health research, policy, and programming for over fifteen years, working on a local, regional, and national level.

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