Healthcare extenders: the unsung heroes of healthcare

Dominika Samojlik

HealthEd Academy, a division of HealthEd

When a patient needs new medication or treatment, typically it’s a doctor’s name and signature on the prescription slip. As a result, pharma companies have invested much of their promotional resources interacting with physicians. Today, as the healthcare landscape shifts, pharma is beginning to recognize the power of a different professional audience whose influence can be felt well beyond the prescription.

These health professionals, who run the gamut from physician’s assistants to social workers to dietitians, support patients in their treatment decisions and provide the one-on-one attention that doctors often cannot. They are the ones who talk patients through the pros and cons of certain medications and help them adhere to their treatment regiments. Often, they work in teams that span across job function and specialty.

These patient-facing health professionals are the healthcare extenders, and they are a key to improving healthcare. Recognizing the role they play, and helping them come together to support patients, can help everyone achieve better health outcomes.

“They don’t always get the attention paid to other stakeholders, yet they are bearing the brunt of many changes in the healthcare system…”

Why pharma should care

Sometimes called allied professionals or mid-level practitioners, healthcare extenders make up a growing group of patient-focused professionals that is becoming increasingly important to the delivery of healthcare outcomes. Often it’s the extender—not the doctor—who is a patient’s primary contact at the point of care and across the lifecycle of chronic disease management.

As a result of our healthcare system’s demands, physicians are forced to spend countless hours completing required paperwork rather than spending the time they want to with their patients. As pointed out by noted blogger Dr. Kevin Pho (aka KevinMD) in one of his blog posts, paperwork takes up “as much as a third of a physician’s workday” and often comes at the expense of face-to-face time with patients. Changing financial incentives also mean more patients are actually seeing extenders during their visits to “the doctor,” as well as in most other clinical settings.

This is where healthcare extenders come in. They are what we consider the unsung heroes of the healthcare system. They don’t always get the attention paid to other stakeholders, yet they are bearing the brunt of many changes in the healthcare system and are looking for practical solutions that can help their patients manage and thrive.

Healthcare extenders are often the professionals who best understand a patient’s reluctance to start or stay on a treatment—a vital touchpoint for pharma. In diabetes care, for example, it’s often a certified diabetes educator, not an endocrinologist, who is helping a patient successfully learn how to inject insulin and integrate the therapy into their lifestyle. Extenders also bring a unique perspective to understanding what really goes on during the clinical encounter, such as the role of care partners in treatment decisions.

The importance of collaboration

One of the biggest opportunities we are seeing for pharma to interact with healthcare extenders is in the area of collaboration. A collaborative approach among different types of healthcare providers can help increase efficiency and improve patient care. Research has shown that as health professionals collaborate with others from a variety of disciplines, they gain the skills to better meet needs of their patients, which ultimately leads to better healthcare outcomes.

“…as health professionals collaborate with others from a variety of disciplines, they gain the skills to better meet needs of their patients…”

For busy health professionals, one way to obtain this education is by connecting with others online. Social networks, listservs, and discussion forums that promote and support interprofessional collaboration among health professionals are proliferating online. We are seeing pharma companies more actively supporting extenders’ learning goals by supporting these communities with grants and sponsorships. While care needs to be taken to balance promotional objectives with learning needs, it’s great to see pharma companies investing in the education of these unsung heroes of healthcare.

Extenders are the future

As a former patient navigator, it was surprising to see how often healthcare extenders are overlooked. Pharmaceutical programs, Web sites, and brochures are typically focused on physicians, when it is really the healthcare extenders who are on the forefront of patient education. In the future, patients are likely to spend even more time with extenders—all the more reason for pharma to pay greater attention to their educational needs.

In conclusion, the more ways that pharma can reach these patient-facing professionals and make it easier for them to collaborate with one another, the more the industry can help create a healthier world. That would be a great outcome not only for patients … but also for the extenders who quietly serve them.

About the author:

Dominika is the Community Manager of SurroundHealth, a healthcare social network where healthcare extenders from different backgrounds come together to learn from one another’s expertise and to share knowledge and resources. Members share a passion for improving the health and well-being of communities and individuals. The community was launched by HealthEd Academy, a division of HealthEd dedicated to fostering research and development in health education.

Dominika has a Master’s Degree in Public Health, and is also a Certified Health Education Specialist. Prior to joining SurroundHealth, Dominika worked for Kaiser Permanente Health System, the American Cancer Society as a Patient Navigator and Community Health Liaison, and most recently for HealthEd, developing oncology patient education programs.

How can we increase recognition of healthcare extenders?