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Optimizing patient partnership in primary care improvement

A qualitative study

Alidina, Shehnaz; Martelli, Peter F.; Singer, Sara J.; Aveling, Emma-Louise

doi: 10.1097/HMR.0000000000000250
Features: PDF Only

Background The need to expand and better engage patients in primary care improvement persists.

Purpose Recognizing a continuum of forms of engagement, this study focused on identifying lessons for optimizing patient partnerships, wherein engagement is characterized by shared decision-making and practice improvement codesign.

Methodology Twenty-three semistructured interviews with providers and patients involved in improvement efforts in seven U.S. primary care practices in the Academic Innovations Collaborative (AIC). The AIC aimed to implement primary care improvement, emphasizing patient engagement in the process. Data were analyzed thematically.

Results Sites varied in their achievement of patient partnerships, encountering material, technical, and sociocultural obstacles. Time was a challenge for all sites, as was engaging a diversity of patients. Technical training on improvement processes and shared learning “on the job” were important. External, organizational, and individual-level resources helped overcome sociocultural challenges: The AIC drove provider buy-in, a team-based improvement approach helped shift relationships from providers and recipients toward teammates, and individual qualities and behaviors that flattened hierarchies and strengthened interpersonal relationships further enhanced “teamness.” A key factor influencing progress toward transformative partnerships was a strong shared learning journey, characterized by frequent interactions, proximity to improvement decision-making, and learning together from the “lived experience” of practice improvement. Teams came to value not only patients’ knowledge but also changes wrought by working collaboratively over time.

Conclusion Establishing practice improvement partnerships remains challenging, but partnering with patients on improvement journeys offers distinctive gains for high-quality patient-centered care.

Practice Implications Engaging diverse patient partners requires significant disruption to organizational norms and routines, and the trend toward team-based primary care offers a fertile context for patient partnerships. Material, technical, and sociocultural resources should be evaluated not only for whether they overcome specific challenges but also for how they enhance the shared learning journey.

This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CCBY), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Shehnaz Alidina, SD, MPH, is Senior Global Health Systems Researcher, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

Peter F. Martelli, PhD, MSPH, is Associate Professor, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts.

Sara J. Singer, PhD, MBA, is Professor, Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford University, California.

Emma-Louise Aveling, PhD, is Research Scientist, Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, and The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. E-mail:

This research was approved by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health Committee on the Use of Human Subjects. This research was supported by a grant from the Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care and CRICO (362121). Emma-Louise Aveling’s contribution was supported by funding from a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award (WT097899M). The Wellcome Trust had no role in the design, collection, or analysis of data. The findings from this article were presented as “Patient engagement in primary care transformation: a learning journey” on October 20, 2016, at the Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care Fifth Anniversary Conference.

The authors have disclosed that they have no significant relationship with, or financial interest in, any commercial companies pertaining to this article.

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