Physician's Sacred Moments Rebuild Human-to-Human Connection

March 30, 2014
Ed Rabinowitz

For quite some time, many of Bridget Duffy's colleagues thought that she was crazy because she wanted to promote ways to restore broken physician-patient relationships.

History does repeat itself.

Bridget Duffy’s father was a dentist—a periodontic gum surgeon by training. And during each break from school he would take all 7 of his children with him to work in the trenches of Indian reservations, or remote regions of Nicaragua or Mexico. He believed in prevention. He believed there was a link between gum disease and bacteria in the mouth, and disease in the rest of the human body. He also believed in giving a voice to the people who didn’t have one when it came to navigating the healthcare system.

“His colleagues thought he was crazy 30 years ago,” recalls Duffy, now chief medical officer for Vocera. “Sure enough, in the last 10 to 15 years, there’s a link between infection in the mouth and heart disease.”

Duffy’s father inspired her to want to speak out for those who do not have a voice. He also inspired her to reach into uncharted territories and empower people to take control of their own health.

“My father was really my inspiration to enter the field of medicine,” Duffy says. “He gives me the courage to keep on going.”

It’s not surprising that today Duffy is inspiring others.

Challenging journey

For quite some time, many of Duffy’s colleagues thought that she, much like her father, was crazy, too. That’s because she wanted to promote ways to restore broken physician-patient relationships. Today, however, as Medicare reimbursement is tied to patient satisfaction, hospital executives are finally starting to listen.

But the journey to this point has been challenging, and Duffy has experienced the frustrations going through diagnoses of cancer within her own family.

“I can ship a case of wine from Sonoma where I live, and get an update from UPS what will tell me where my product is in the journey—yet, they would take a sample of tissue from my sister-in-law’s breast or my brother’s prostate or my brother’s finger, on a Tuesday, and you’d have no idea whether you have cancer or you don’t,” she explains. “You’re life is in their hands. You have no ability to tell them when you want to get the news and what loved one you want by your side. And out of the blue you get a cold call on a Thursday, when you’re by yourself, telling you you’ve got cancer, and it’s like a bomb drops. So those are the technologies, the innovations that I’m passionate about deploying that give patients that power and enable them to navigate the system.”

Along the way, Duffy received some good advice from Earl Bakken, who invented the pacemaker and founded Medtronic. Early in her career, after reading a paper he wrote called “How to Build the First Healing Hospital in America,” she had a chance to speak with Bakken. He told her to remember one thing as she embarked on her medical career: only 20% of healing is aided through technology. It’s important to focus on the other 80%, as well.

“What’s the other 80%?” she asked.

“It’s 3 things,” Bakken told her. “The relationship that you have with your patient as a doctor. One, it’s a sacred relationship. Two, the physical environment matters—the food and nutrition we put in patients’ bodies, and the doctors and nurses. And three is spirituality. We have to bring that back into healthcare.”

Duffy has not forgotten those words.

Important concepts

Duffy believes that many of the breakdowns in connection and communication in healthcare begin even before a patient has been admitted or checked in. It was that belief that led to the development of the Sacred Moments program/philosophy, which grew out of assistance the team she workd with provided to Twin Rivers Medical Center, a small hospital in rural Missouri that was one of the lowest scoring hospitals in patient satisfaction and employee engagement.

Focus groups with healthcare professionals at the medical center revealed that what was most broken was the intake, or patient admission process. Medical Director Steve Pu, DO, and his team at Twin Rivers Medical Center developed Sacred Moments upon admission, which reestablished the human-to-human connection between patients and physicians, nurses, and clinicians. The philosophy carves out time for healthcare professionals to sit down with the patient and ask critical questions about the patient’s fears and concerns; their spiritual needs.

“I went into this begrudgingly, thinking this is one more patient satisfaction tactic I had to do,” one healthcare professional said. “But after I created a Sacred Moments on admission, I realized it had better benefits for me than it did on my patients. It reconnected me to why I wanted to become a nurse in the first place.”

Since implementing Sacred Moments in January 2012, the medical center has improved its HCAHPS scores by 33%.

Full-time passion

Even in her spare time, Duffy focuses on making things better within a sometimes fragmented and fractured healthcare system. Together with her husband, she performs volunteer work in Bogota, Colombia, and is on the board of the Children’s Heart Link, a group in India that she works with.

“I think [volunteering and giving back] is deeply instilled in my work because of my father,” Duffy says. “That brings me a lot of energy.”

And she gets added energy from many other sources as well.

“When you sit by a patient and they look you in the eye and say, ‘You helped,’ or ‘You eased the burden of illness,’ that’s the most rewarding thing,” Duffy says.

But it’s not just about helping patients; it’s about helping doctors and nurses, too.

“When I hear the same from doctors and nurses; when I see that we give hope to doctors and nurses to ease the stress of being in the trenches, and that it helps them not want to quit or retire early, that keeps me going,” Duffy explains. “Because there are a lot of days when I want to leave and just go bake bread in a bakery, because I think healthcare is still so broken. But I have to tell you, when I hear 9-year olds undergoing chemotherapy say, ‘Keep going, Bridget, you have to do something to help the suffering of humanity,’ it gives me a little spark, and answers the question of why I do this.”