@MI2Innovation Making Healthcare Safety Contagious

First published on MI2.org Think Differently

On October 16th, Allan Fong MS, Raj Ratwani PhD and Sarah Henrickson PhD from the MedStar Health Institute for Innovation Human Factors Engineering group will travel to New York City as one of eight teams selected from over 250 entrants who submitted healthcare innovation projects to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneer Project. The team’s project, entitled Creating a Social Epidemic of Safety, aims to harness the power of natural social networks within healthcare organizations to identify those who can influence an epidemic of safety. In their words:

In healthcare, we try change culture through training, meetings and seminars on how to be safe. But we are convinced that at the sharp end of care, where the rubber meets the road,  it’s actually relationships, not lectures or signs on the wall that influence people’s actions.  Previous research in the social sciences has shown time and again how difficult it is to change human behavior; but it has also shown that if people are going to change their behavior, it’s because of the power of social influence…By utilizing technological advances in sociometric measurement and analysis to identify and target social influencers within a healthcare system, we will use their influence to improve safety.

Following is a brief explanation of the RWJF Pioneer Project, which explains the type of projects they are looking to fund.

Judges for the Pitch include healthcare innovators such as Ben Sawyer (Co-Founder Games for Health project funded by the RWJF Pioneer Portfolio), Ben Heywood (Co-Founder & President of PatientsLikeMe) and Thomas Goetz (RWJF Entrepreneur-in-Residence & previous executive editor, Wired Magazine).

Best of luck to Allan, Raj and Sarah, as this very important work builds upon theories established by the research of Nicholas Christakis, MD and James Fowler, PhD (@JamesFowler), 2 time RWJF Pioneer Portfolio grantees, also discussed in an Educate the Young post, The Power of Social Networks to Change Health Behavior. As chronic disease with behaviorally-based contributing factors continues to haunt both providers and payers, these more socially driven health solutions could prove to be the holy grail of healthcare. If nothing else, it’s a departure from a norm that isn’t working, and strives to use human connections in meaningful ways. Human connection, aka social support, has been shown time and time again to have measurable impact in a number of domains such as happiness, longevity, health and exercise. There is definitely something to be said for the “strength in numbers” approach when looking to spread culture change, especially in a system hard-wired by the past. By purposefully connecting those in healthcare with colleagues having an ability to catalyze meaningful change, those networks driven to impart safety messages and behaviors can gain the strength and power to overcome the inertia of a status quo.

How the Stories of Our Lives Can Change Healthcare

If you’re interested in how to use stories to change your healthcare work, please watch this two-minute video before reading.

In my new favorite magazine, Fast Company, a Co.Create section article, The Heart of Storytelling… recently highlighted how the American Red Cross is using stories of those who have received their services to help share their message and provide information about the work they do. To the credit of both the Red Cross and their ad agency, BBDO New York, the two groups recognized that their original ad campaign using storytelling lacked authenticity and felt forced. So instead, they mailed video cameras to those who could tell the story first hand, and then edited the content to share the words of those who had lived these life-changing events, such as:

Maybe putting a camera, or tools like social media, blogs, email, or good old-fashioned pen and paper in the hands of more patients, allowing them to tell the world about authentic experiences of care will leave a greater impact on those providing care, as well as their peers and consumers of healthcare. We’ve been told by many expert storytellers to share stories that touch the heart to create the change we need. But how long do emotions need to stay charged in order to equal action? And what is it that finally flips the switch to act? Is it unwavering social support or is it that the “character” within the story moves us to action? The suspension of disbelief created in a movie theater is fleeting, and the change needed in healthcare is lasting and challenging. Do we need to be reminded of these patient stories over and over, or will we become desensitized over time?

In an April 2012 Social Science & Medicine article, Aspirin Use and Cardiovascular Events, Strully & Fowler et al showed again how social networks influence health behavior–specifically cardiovascular health in this study. Their research showed that the cardiovascular event of a same sex friend or family member–i.e. a woman’s female friend or a man’s brother–was shown to increase the likelihood that each would adopt aspirin therapy to prevent cardiovascular disease. Their research also considered the confounding factor that those who actually took aspirin might be influenced by the same well-meaning physician–however this turned out not to be the case. The story this data could be telling us is that health behavior is influenced more so by the story lines of the lives of friends and family than the prescriptions given by healthcare professionals for non-acute care. At least for me, this research implies my health behavior will change when one of my girlfriends has a stroke. This research also implies that maybe we don’t have to wait for someone “like us” to have a cardiovascular event before we change the story. Rather, perhaps health prevention of the future is creating a new story altogether and targeting influential people within a social network to make treatment, or positive health behavior, spread like good gossip or a bad virus.