Health care leaders bent on improving the patient experience largely have targeted their employees, skirting around the sometimes refractory physician community. But they are becoming aware that now, more than ever, they must partner with physicians if they are going to be successful.

Several forces are aligning to make this an opportune time for physician engagement. Value-based purchasing, accountable care organizations, pay for performance, public access to Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems scores, physician stress and disgruntlement, and the call for collaborative and coordinated health care teams all motivate physicians to become valuable collaborators and partners in patient experience strategies.

George Carlin wisely said, "Inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist." Please consider this sentiment when you entertain the thought that physicians are tough to engage, and even tougher to develop. Physicians are devoted to excellence and to providing a high-quality experience for patients and families. In a nutshell, physicians are at their core deeply caring, and it is from that place of caring that they are connected to the intrinsic nobility of their daily work. That caring and nobility is the portal to physician engagement.

Still, the physician mindset long has been anchored in a paternalistic archetype of independence, expertise and authority. While this attitude has served the profession well, the current forces call for a new mindset that focuses on patient-centered care, team leadership and partnership, and membership in a caring community.

A three-pronged strategy for physician engagement can work well for most health care organizations. This strategic approach includes: (1) engaging physicians as partners in strategic planning, (2) building skills to improve patient-physician relationships, and (3) developing and supporting physicians as team leaders and coaches.

Engaging Physicians in Strategic Planning

Invite physicians into the creative strategic conversation from the outset — doing so lets them share in shaping a vision and gain ownership in collective initiatives. The physician voice lends an understanding of why patient experience initiatives matter to doctors and to the entire health care team and helps to identify opportunities. Physicians as partners offer unique insights into laying the groundwork for an effective physician engagement plan; they can then participate in identifying potential physician champions, both formal leaders and informal opinion leaders, who can model engagement and act as change agents.

Once you have identified and engaged those champions, they can develop strategies and insights to bolster the larger conversation among the physician population. Better understanding of how the strategy serves patients, families and the whole of the health care team, including physicians, will become embedded in the cultural conversation.

Invite even more creative processes to identify opportunities, recognize success and engage a wider population. Ultimately, your organization will reach a tipping point at which the conversation of this handful of physicians, working in concert with the team, becomes part of the ordinary dialogue of their peers.

Improving Patient-Physician Relationships

Abundant evidence shows that effective communication and interpersonal factors are central to desirable goals we all share. Many of those goals relate to physician-patient components, including better patient adherence to treatment plans; increased patient loyalty; and enhanced patient satisfaction.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that malpractice risk decreases dramatically when physicians and health care providers master communication and relationship skills. Medical outcomes improve, in part because of more appropriate decision-making that results from effective conversations between physicians and patients.

You can help physicians communicate with patients, families and the entire health care team in ways that build relationships, earn trust and foster cooperation. Employ processes to help physicians fine-tune the specific communication skills key to patient and family-centered care, the unparalleled patient experience, positive clinical outcomes and a more satisfying practice.

A number of tools are available for organizations to achieve these goals. For example, our firm has conducted extensive research on evidence-based best practices and organized these practices into several learning modules. When physicians implement such practices, we have found that they can achieve higher survey scores, a more positive public profile, and an even better reputation. They can also enjoy enhanced earnings with pay-for-performance programs and the growth in professional and personal pride that results from satisfying relationships, positive outcomes and grateful patients.

Developing Physicians as Leaders and Coaches

Physicians are powerful members of an inclusive health care team, and empowering physicians as team leaders and coaches is vital to physician engagement. Ensure that physicians have all of the knowledge and resources available to master the transition from self-management to team leadership. Extend leadership training to physicians in time-sensitive formats to dissipate concerns about overcommitment and time constraints.

Assist physicians in recalling the potent ways in which they already impact the entirety of the health care experience. Physicians long have set the tone for health care cultures and have provided a model for professionalism and performance. Physician presence is a strong motivator for the engagement of the wide range of members of the health care team.

Creating a Culture of Caring

Physicians touch the hearts and minds of those who come to them for care, and of those with whom they work shoulder to shoulder each day. Physicians already are empowered as leaders, in their conscious and their less conscious actions, communications and behaviors. Supporting physicians through processes that assist them in reconnecting with their original devotion to medicine — to re-creating the inner experience of purpose that continues to define medicine as a noble pursuit — strengthens their individual commitment to the whole.

As the effort to expand physician engagement grows in the interest of creating a culture of caring, physicians can cultivate their caring for one another. Their willingness to express their caring and appreciation to one another as members of a health care team is a visible sign of their shared dedication, mutual regard and understanding that they are all engaged in purposeful, honorable, noble work.

Full engagement and empowerment of everyone on the health care team, including physicians, not only satisfies and enriches the lives of patients and their families, it also fulfills and enriches the lives of the people of medicine.

Carla J. Rotering, M.D., who operates out of Phoenix, is the vice president of Physician Services for the Language of Caring (www.languageofcaring.com).