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Person-Centered Care Focuses on Patients' Needs

What person-centered care means and how you can get it

By Patricia Corrigan and SCAN Foundation

The way patients and health care providers think about health care delivery is changing, with an increasing desire to involve patients in decisions and planning. Today, many providers also work to meet patients’ needs that go beyond medical treatments. This philosophy is known as person-centered care.

Person-Centered Care
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The SCAN Foundation, an independent public charity (and funder of Next Avenue), defines that philosophy as putting older adults “at the center of the decision-making process” by making use of a care team “that considers the full range of needs of individuals and their families.”

Rebecca Kirch
Rebecca Kirch

Rebecca Kirch, executive vice president of health care quality and value at the nonprofit National Patient Advocate Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a proponent of the philosophy. “So often in our health care system, when we are asked what’s the matter, the provider’s response to our answer doesn't always align with what matters in our lives to us or to our families,” Kirch says.

What does person-centered care look like, and how can you get it? Here are some examples and advice to help you start a conversation with your doctor about a broader range of care for yourself or a loved one:

‘We Listen to What Patients Need'

Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group in San Diego has committed itself to person-centered care, with the goals of improving communication channels and offering more support services.

“Medical groups across the country are paying more attention to what patients need and want because patient involvement produces the best outcomes,” says Janet Appel, Sharp Rees-Stealy’s director of population health. The organization serves some 220,000 patients who make more than a million doctor visits each year.

Janet Appel
Janet Appel

Appel added, “If people are not engaged in how they receive care, their health goals will most likely not be met.” The medical group practices person-centered care in several ways, including:

  • Phone or video appointments
  • Webinars on topics such as diabetes education
  • Expanded evening and weekend hours
  • Case management services
  • Support programs
  • Nurse navigators to help with difficult diagnoses
  • Texting to receive reminders and health tips

“The texting program is especially popular,” Appel says. “Patients choose how often to receive texts with tips for healthy living, reminders about appointments or information on where and when flu shots are available. They can also text us with questions, and texting answers back to them helps us stay connected at the patients’ convenience.”

Appel noted that Sharp Rees-Stealy actively seeks feedback so it can make changes that will help communications and practices evolve based on what patients want. “We listen to what patients need in order to improve patient engagement to improve healthy outcomes,” she says.

Delivering Care Where Patients Are Is ‘Critical’

At Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP), a not-for-profit Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program) and Medicare health plan, the focus on person-centered care extends to individuals who may need it the most. Based in Rancho Cucamonga, IEHP is a network of more than 6,000 providers and 2,000 team members who serve more than 1.2 million people.

Through the Affordable Care Act, a large pilot program called the Behavioral Health Integration and Complex Care Initiative allows IEHP to provide person-centered care for its low-income plan members at locations convenient to them.

Brad Gilbert
Dr. Bradley Gilbert

Working with a dozen agencies, IEHP has staff at 30 sites. “We’ve put nurses, behavioral health specialists and care coordinators at primary care offices, behavioral health clinics, substance abuse treatment clinics, adult day care centers, assisted living centers and pain management clinics,” says Dr. Bradley P. Gilbert, IEHP’s chief executive officer.


“Many people we serve face many complicated issues, including with their health, housing, transportation and other challenges, so making sure they are part of the planning and then delivering care to them where they are is critical,” Gilbert says.

The project has made significant improvements in people’s health, based on measurements regarding depression, anxiety, blood pressure and more, Gilbert says. “We’ve had great feedback from members, and providers also say they like the structure of the health care delivery.”

Currently, the pilot program is in transition. The number of sites is increasing, and nurse care managers, social workers and community health workers are being added at each. Plus, IEHP is working to house high-risk members who are homeless.

Ask Your Doctor About Person-Centered Care

What about your needs?

Is it a hardship to arrange transportation for X-rays, screenings or blood tests done across town from your primary physician’s office? Maybe you see specialists in two separate health care systems and you want them to better coordinate your care. Could you benefit from a talk with a social worker about local agencies that help pay some living costs?

Speak up, the experts advise.

“Let your voice be heard,” Appel says. “Ask what patient-centered care means at your doctor’s office, and if it’s not available, ask how you can help get that started.” You may be surprised, she adds, at the doctor’s willingness to listen.

“The medical world has gotten into what retail has done all along — listening to the consumers and then drawing them in by offering what the consumers want,” she says. “Today, there is a lot of competition, with many places to go for health care.”

Person-centered care can be especially important when individuals are coping with serious illness. Kirch, at the National Patient Advocate Foundation, gave this example: “Palliative care, now part of mainstream medicine, presents a bullet-proof case for person-centered care that aligns treatment with the goals and the specific needs of the person and the family affected, rather than focusing only on the disease. Providers must ask about those goals, document them and honor them.”

‘What We Need Now is More Public Demand’

Like Appel, Kirch encourages speaking up for what you want from your provider. “Public demand makes medical practices change faster than any policy or payment incentive,” she says.

How would Kirch assess the status of person-centered care in the U.S. today? “We have more than a toehold, but not yet a foothold,” she says. “We have demonstration programs in place in some pockets of the country, but it’s not yet scaled to where it needs to be. Still, I’m optimistic. What we need now is more public demand.”

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More
By SCAN Foundation
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