Keys to an Effective Healthcare Team

September 20, 2013

Team-based healthcare relies on everyone working together for the benefit of the patient. And under health reform, having an effective team has its rewards.

I was picking up my mail at my business mailbox the other day and saw two paramedics sitting in their ambulance in a parking lot "standing post." They were having an obviously friendly and animated conversation as they waited for their next call. This brought back many happy memories for me. I spent four years at the beginning of my medical career working ambulance in the central San Joaquin Valley. I worked with a variety of partners, but developed close relationships with a couple of them as we worked together for 24-hour to 48-hour shifts every week. You learn a lot about folks in this situation and grow close.

Ambulance crews were the ultimate team for me as we worked together many long hours in a variety of conditions. We shared our successes, and we suffered through our failure, always together as a team. This early acculturation, as well as the acculturation that I received as a physician assistant student, made me cognizant of the importance of relationships in the team practice of medicine. But, what makes a good team?

I have been a member on a variety of teams in my life and career. Some teams I've been a part of because of my preference and choosing, and some teams have been thrust upon me based on work or other situations. I've always been curious regarding the characteristics of what makes a good team member. A recent article in Psychology Todaydiscusses seven important characteristics of team members.

It is no surprise that the number one identified characteristic of a good team member is honesty and straightforwardness. Both of these characteristics translate into what can simply be defined as "trust."

My physician partner and I work many long and hard hours together. We spend much more time with each other then we do with our families, much to our chagrin. Without an element of trust, there is no way that we can effectively care for all of the patients that present themselves to our practice and our unit for care. We have to trust each other to independently execute the treatment plan, and we have to trust that each of us has each other's back at all times. That comes from long experience and positive outcomes together. Trust is earned, not given.

The top five are rounded out by the following characteristics: shares the load; reliable; fair; and compliments each other’s skills. I believe that everyone on the medical team would recognize these characteristics and their fellow good team members and would agree with what makes a good team member.

A busy surgical inpatient practice should be a good example of the importance of team practice, as well as the importance of these individual team characteristics. The surgeon is the "captain of the ship" so to speak, but he or she relies on a vast team of professionals to diagnose, treat and heal the patient who present to the practice for care.

From PAs, nurses, and diagnostic services staff, to OR techs, orderlies, and technical support, it takes a vast team to safely treat a surgical patient. The surgeon has to have a group of professionals he or she trusts, and can rely on to share the load and be reliable to function in the interest of the patient and the team, no matter what. I know that after five years, my surgeon partner and I "compliment" each other's skills and abilities, and the end result is a better, safer experience for the patients that rely on us for their surgical care.

The Affordable Care Act will place a premium on interdisciplinary team-based practice. There is a lot that is required and incentivized under the reform law in the areas of education and prevention to expand care to patient populations.

The practices and healthcare facilities that do this better will reap economic benefits and advantages. The patients can also expect better and proactive preventative care. It behooves healthcare teams to understand what makes a good team to capitalize on the strengths of individual team members, to ultimately make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This will be an interesting time in the history of medicine in the United States. What I do know is that team practice will become more important, and that physician-PA teams are excellently positioned to take advantage of this trend in medicine.