Diabetes Research: My Evolution Toward a Patient Revolution.
I like Dr. Victor Montori. He’s a Mayo Clinic diabetes doctor and researcher who is working for a patient revolution – versus healthcare corruption – and for treatments that fit patients properly. He and I are part of a PCORI team looking at user-centered design and the development of patient decision aids, and I had the chance to meet with Dr. Montori in person at the PCORI meeting in DC last month.
What I like most about Dr. Montori is that he doesn’t say what people want to hear, but he says what he feels needs to be heard. I respect the lack of bowing to the status quo, and the desire to improve the system. Today, for Diabetes Month [insert blue circle confetti here], Dr. Montori has graciously offered to share his perspectives on why the patient revolution is important, and how we are all a part of it.
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Diabetes research: my evolution toward a patient revolution
I can only speak of the picture I have had a chance to see directly since I started my career as an endocrinologist in 2000. I am referring to my perspective about diabetes. I worry my perspective is narrow and skewed, but it is what it is. So here it is, offered humbly in case it helps.
My training as endocrinologist focused on conducting research with my mentor, Dr. Steven A. Smith, research he had oriented toward discovering better ways of caring for diabetes in the community. He taught me about the different ways in which clinicians and communities could support people with diabetes, and how, in health care, specialists and generalists needed to work together. He saw the role of endocrinologists more as architects, designers of systems of care, rather than as artisans, designers of care programs for individual patients. He made me aware of the challenges poorly designed health care adds to the already complicated lives of patients. And he made me aware of the complicated lives of patients and how terrible clinicians would improve their standing by either directly firing patients or by chastising the noncompliant ones who would then leave the practice. These clinicians would then boast that they did not have noncompliant patients and had no trouble keeping them all under 7%. This to me exemplifies the corruption of healthcare.
I think there is a direct link between those early lessons and those I have learned as a researcher and clinician focused on diabetes in the last decade. My band of sisters and brothers, the Knowledge and Evaluation Research Unit or KER UNIT, works closely with a patient advisory group comprised of patients with diabetes who have met monthly since November 2004 to support researchers like us in our work. Firmly keeping us patient-centered has been their key contribution. The KER UNIT was formed on the basis on three principles: generosity, integrity, and patient-centeredness. These are lived principles and we constantly refer back to them to make tough decisions. They have served us well. As a result, for example, we take no funding from for profit corporations, funding that could stand as an alternative explanation – to scientific judgment – for how we have summarized evidence or presented it to patients and clinicians.
We focused our first efforts as a unit to understand how we know what we know, as this translated into what we told patients to do. In doing so we found that much of our dogma is based on unreliable evidence, that much of that evidence fails to tell us if patients will be better off with our interventions, and that it focuses on a mythical molecule, the HbA1c. HbA1c is the outcome of choice for all clinical trials, the metric of quality for most quality improvement projects, and the only grade on the gradebook on the desk of the endocrinologist-as-principal. And when we asked patients, HbA1c was as important as death as an outcome for diabetes research! The manipulation of patients and clinicians was complete.
With my colleagues at the KER UNIT, we then turned our attention to shared decision making and developed the first tool to help patients and clinicians decide together if the patient should take a statin to prevent heart attacks or which diabetes drug to choose. Those tools, found on trials to be effective, have remained freely available and are used at least 10,000 times per month, around the world. By bringing transparency to the consultation, patients and clinicians could find what is best for each patient, based on what is possible and effective and on what matters to patients.
In 2009, we started to develop an approach that seeks to advance the goals of patients while minimizing the healthcare footprint on their lives. This work involves recognizing the work of being patient, understanding the burden of treatment, and learning how healthcare could be delivered in a way that is careful with what it demands and kind with the precious capacity patients have to do this work and to do the more meaningful work of addressing life’s urgent demands while pursuing their hopes and dreams. We call this minimally disruptive medicine, and we believe it is going to transform medical care, particularly for patients living with chronic conditions like diabetes.
This is particularly important for patients with chronic conditions like type 1 diabetes. Patients with diabetes study, work, and grow families, develop careers and volunteer, plan schemes and pursue challenges. Diabetes sometimes gets in the way, but care of of diabetes – organized often to satisfy economic and business urgencies, almost always gets in the way. Think of the difficulties of getting stuff paid, approved, coordinated, or delivered, of getting medications refilled, getting records shared with other clinicians and with patients. Paper work, time work, worry work. Technologies are helping reduce the healthcare footprint of diabetes in people’s lives, just as an increase awareness of the human cost of hypoglycemia is helping nuance the care of patients with diabetes in hospitals and clinics. Hopefully the endocrinologist-as-principal judging the patient only on the basis of HbA1c levels is an endangered species we will not save. Only competent and compassionate medical partners and clinics, able to be careful and kind, need apply. Our team is quantifying the work of being a patient with diabetes and bringing to consultations tools to uncover why patients may struggle to achieve their own goals.
Our latest pursuit recognizes the limitations of only innovating within healthcare. We think we need to fundamentally change medicine and re-orient healthcare toward the care of patients. To achieve that we need to change the way health care is organized, paid for, delivered, and rewarded. Clinicians, my colleagues, recognize the need to recover medical care of the patient from the industrialization of health care, but they declare their impotence. Thus, I strongly believe it is time for a patient revolution.
Perhaps the next big civil rights movement, the patient revolution will claim that people cannot be left out, priced out, of the care they need. They will claim that people cannot be exposed to less healthcare than they need, or more healthcare than they want, and that health care must fit their context. They will claim that healthcare cannot start and stop at the hospital door, but rather should be complemented by policies that improve the health of the community and reduce the impact of factors that promote chronic illness such as pollution, violence, poverty, inequality, inequity, loneliness, homelessness, and poor nutrition. Through individual advocacy (not for a single disease or for a loved one alone) and collective action (not the walk, the run, the ride, or the bucket) we can bring change to make healthcare more about care for and about the patient. I invite you to mobilize your friends and family and to join the patient revolution.
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Thanks, Dr. Montori, for sharing your thoughts. As patients and caregivers touched by diabetes, how can we be part of the revolution? Patient voices and perspectives are not new. We are the revolution.