Porter gives patients a voice in how they get medical care

MIDDLBURY — Porter Medical Center each year helps hundreds of patients improve their health.
Now the hospital is hoping to improve its own health through advice from its patients.
The Middlebury-based hospital, rehabilitation center and suite of physicians offices next week will launch their first-ever Patient and Family Advisory Council, a panel that will offer advice on how PMC could improve the patient experience in such areas as billing, clinical care and facilities.
“We’re looking for folks who are interested in providing feedback and fixing things,” said Alison Wurst, Porter’s director of population health and care management.
The Patient and Family Advisory Council will be introduced at a kickoff celebration on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Middlebury Inn.
Porter officials are still accepting applications from prospective council members, being culled from the community and Porter staff who have also been patients. The application can be found online at portermedicalcenter.org.
“We don’t have a perfect number (of members) in mind, but for right now we will keep it small,” said Stacey Dwire, PMC’s inaugural “patient experience and quality improvement coordinator.”
As of last week, Dwire had signed up seven people eager to serve on the new panel, which will meet monthly and participate in occasional special projects aimed at boosting the patient/family experience at Porter.
Council members will be unpaid advisors who are expected to:
•  Help improve the quality of Porter Medical Center’s care for all patients and family members.
•  Give feedback to hospital officials based on their own experiences as a patient or family member.
•  Help plan changes for the hospital to improve delivery of patient care.
•  Work with the hospital for either short or long-term commitments, depending on the project.
In addition, members will be invited to hear — and comment on — guest speakers’ commentary on patient-related topics.
Porter Chief Medical Officer Dr. Carrie Wulfman said the council will regularly convey its findings and suggestions to the organization’s Patient Experience Committee. The information will then make its way to Porter’s Quality and Patient Safety Department, and then to the PMC board of directors, according to Wulfman.
“This is something the senior leadership team here has wanted to see for a while,” Wulfman said.
Amber Bailey, PMC’s director of quality and patient safety, said she and her colleagues currently get most of their patient feedback through surveys, emails and a specially designated phone line.
Dwire takes a look at any complaints/advice, contacts the source for additional details, and then reaches out to the pertinent physician or department manager, according to Bailey.
Any threats of legal action are sent to PMC’s compliance and management division.
Kim Farnham of New Haven is a member of the new Porter Patient and Family Advisory Council, and comes on board with some valuable experience. She was already a member of the University of Vermont Medical Center’s patient council.
She’s pleased to serve in the same capacity for Porter.
“My journey started around two years ago in this particular facility,” she said. “I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude and love the opportunity to come back and talk to not only the medical staff here, but any other people in the (patient) situation, so they get to hear my journey — good or bad — depending on the procedure that took place.”
Her journey as a patient took her from Porter — where she had undergone for mammograms and a lumpectomy — to UVM Medical Center, where she underwent a bilateral mastectomy as part of her breast cancer treatment.
“At that time, there were a couple of things that didn’t go well for me, and some that went very well,” Farnham said of her experiences at both locations.
As a longtime school board member and mediator, she believed she could provide helpful feedback to both hospitals on the quality of care she received.
“What kind of solutions could I offer to try to make this experience a little better for other people and their families, rather than just being in ‘attack mode’?” Farnham asked herself.
That led her to joining the UVM patient and family advisory group, which launched around three years ago and now counts approximately 150 members, according to Farnham.
In her role, Farnham occasionally gives input to UVM Medical Center’s radiology and oncology departments, on matters ranging from facility improvements to how staff members are interacting with patients.
She’s spoken with medical students, nurses and administrators about what patients expect and how their desires can be fulfilled.
Farnham is also a great advocate and spokesperson during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) conferences and other related activities.
Wurst already has an assignment in mind for Farnham and her colleagues. One of PMC’s stated priorities is to ensure patients have good access to primary care.
“But what does ‘access’ really mean for a patient?” Wurst said. “That might mean something different than (administrators) think it means.”
Council members could help PMC officials better define patient expectations by answering some basic questions, according to Wurst, including:
•  When you’re calling your (physician’s) office, what are you expecting?
•  What do you want to hear?
•  What feels reassuring?
•  What leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth?
“We shouldn’t assume we know what patients are thinking,” she said. “We are really quite biased from having worked in health care for so long, and have thoughts that might not match up with what our patients and families are expecting.”
Farnham has found her time on the UVM council very fulfilling, and anticipates feeling the same way about PMC panel.
“It creates such a different form of communication with everyone; there’s an ‘Aha’ moment that takes place where everybody says, ‘That’s a very simple (solution) and it doesn’t cost a lot of money,” Farnham said.
“That’s what we bring to the table — that positive piece of … how to make a person’s journey a little easier se we can learn from your experience,” she added.
Typically, each patient/family council meeting includes a member recounting his or her personal patient experience, according to Farnham. That tradition will be adopted by the Porter Patient and Family Advisory Council.
“I’m blown away by some of the people and what they’ve gone through — and what they continue to give back to a particular facility that worked for them,” Farnham said.
Porter CEO Dr. Fred Kniffin is looking forward to seeing the council in action.
“If we are going to make meaningful improvements in the patient experience, we need input from the patients who experience it,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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