Patient-centered care (as it is described by doctors) or person-centered care (the phrase-more frequently used in non-medical settings) is one of those concepts everyone supports–except when it comes to the details. On Nov. 8-9, I’ll be participating in a two-day symposium sponsored by the Samueli Institute aimed at breaking down the barriers between the medical and non-medical world and seeking evidence to show the benefits of patient (or person) centered care.

The conference, which aimed at health care professionals, will be held in Alexandria, VA. I’ll be delivering one of the keynotes, along with Carolyn Clancy, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The Samueli Institute is a non-profit dedicated to integrative medicine, optimal healing environments, the role of the mind in healing, behavioral medicine, health care policy, and military and veterans’ health care.

When I talk to hospital and nursing home administrators, they all say they want to do a better job focusing on the needs of their patients or residents. And many say they are doing it well. But often, they are falling short of true person-centered care. They are improving what hotel marketers would call the “customer experience” by adding amenities. For instance, a hospital recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal now serves wild salmon on its menu and has added ESPN to it cable listings.

Nothing wrong with that. Who wouldn’t want better food in the hospital? But that’s not patient-centered care.

That facility, Grady Memorial in Atlanta, is also teaching doctors to–sit down now–stop interrupting patients while they are talking. Now that is progress.

But letting a patient speak is still not person-centered. That requires another step–actually listening  to what she is saying and making her and her family a real part of the care team. 

In the end, it is all about control. It is about doctors asking patients about their goals–and paying attention to what they say–and sharing decisions with people who have no medical training. 

This is not how doctors normally think. But it matters. Does a patient want to live as long as possible, or would she prefer to be pain-free even if it means giving up a few years? Does a patient want to take his chances with a high-risk surgery,even  if the outcome could be death, or a very poor quality of life? 

Does a nursing home resident want a breakfast at 7 :00AM, or 10:00? Who wants spiritual rather than medical care? Who wants both?

The answers, of course, differ from person to person. And that’s the point. This kind of care requires doctors, nurses, and social workers to take the time to get to know their patients and what they want.

That raises the question: Does patient- or person-centered care work? Does it improve outcomes? In the end, are people who participate in their own care decisions healthier? And because there is so much focus on the cost of health care these days, does it save money?   

The Samueli conference will explore many of these questions. I’ll be interested to learn what experts in the field have to say.