Outcomes Measurement and the Case for Selective Jargon

I really dislike professional jargon. Defined by Dictionary.com as “specialized language…characterized by pretentious syntax, vocabulary or meaning,” jargon gives us the false impression that we’re communicating—without establishing a sense of shared understanding. Without understanding, there’s little hope for action. And without action, there’s no basis for improvement. But sometimes jargon is useful, because it shines a spotlight on how little we collectively know about topics too important to ignore.

In healthcare, the term “outcomes” is one that is both ill-defined and crucially important.

Last month, I watched an HBR webinar, Measuring Outcomes: The Key to Value-Based Health Care. The speakers were from ICHOM, a non-profit consortium dedicated to improving health systems by measuring and reporting patient outcomes in a standardized manner. During the webinar, speakers talked about the importance of outcomes measurement. They linked outcomes measures to higher patient survival rates, reduced mortality rates and dramatic cost savings.

They also acknowledged, however, that most of the available outcomes data “isn’t all that helpful.” Many providers are overwhelmed by new regulations and don’t know where to begin with measurement. Patients don’t know where to turn for information—or how to interpret the data if they find it. Measurement discussions are often a “Tower of Babel,” according to Caleb Stowell, VP of Research and Development at ICHOM. “Even if you want to measure, you can’t. We need some standardization.”

That statement got me thinking. When critically important terms are poorly defined, how do we achieve mutual understanding? Historically, our legal and political systems have relied on rules set by experts.

Yet ICHOM’s approach is more collaborative. They are working together with physicians, researchers and patient advocates to define standard outcomes for each medical condition and then coordinating with clinicians, treatment centers and payers to share, learn from and improve the data.

This kind of standard-setting requires a huge amount of teamwork in a field (i.e. healthcare) that has been siloed by specialties, facilities, geographies and disciplines.

But, as Stowell notes, “some institutions are succeeding,” and their success seems to be the result of integrated teams across the healthcare continuum working together in a trusting relationship. These success stories—the Martini Klinik, Texas Children’s Hospital, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Massachusetts General Hospital, to name a few—show that care improves when clinicians, facilities and payers agree on shared goals and incentives and then measure outcomes transparently and collaboratively. “No one player [can] do it alone,” says Dr. David Share, SVP, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Stowell and Share remind us that the best way to establish shared understanding is through shared action—and that jargon can sometimes be a signal that there’s critically important collaboration yet to be done.

Photo credit: H Assaf, Free Images

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