In business today, we use “silo” to refer to how we work within our functions, geographies, disciplines, divisions, or departments. Working this way is generally useful to ensure focus, consistency, and subject matter expertise. However, it can sometimes unintentionally blind us to the experiences, capabilities, skills, ideas, and insights of our colleagues across the company—not to mention limit awareness of work already in progress—that could complement our own work and contribute to our shared goal of improving patients’ lives.
The truth is, in our industry, we have a tendency to often view patients through the lens of our own “silo.” But patients themselves don’t silo their healthcare experience. Instead, they see themselves as overwhelmed navigating an often complex healthcare environment that does not always prioritize their needs.
As head of Astellas’ Patient Experience Organization, I lead a team that’s part of a company-wide effort to encourage our employees to consider how to break down silos and challenge the status quo in the spirit of doing even more for patients. We believe that to be on the forefront of healthcare change to turn innovative science into value for patients, we must collaborate better and more often. And this requires working beyond traditional workplace silos.
Organizing Around the Patient Experience
When my team first formed and began our journey, we wanted to be sure that all employees first understood the goal we were working toward and—no matter their role at Astellas—the importance of their contribution to doing more for patients.
We initiated an industry-first internal assessment with a leading expert consultancy in patient centricity for the top U.S. hospital systems. Our results found that not all of our employees felt connected to the patients we serve or understood how their role contributed to the patient experience. To be successful, we knew we needed everyone—from experts in regenerative medicine and cell therapy research to sales representatives, scientific medical liaisons, and the legal and accounting teams—to understand exactly how they contribute individually and collectively to improving the experience of the patients who depend on us.
This meant we needed to agree on a common definition of the patient experience that could span beyond departments, teams, functions, and roles. After inviting participation from stakeholders across the organization to help shape the definition, we landed on “making a difference for patients by engaging with empathy, providing innovative therapies, and improving experiences and outcomes.”
We also identified patient touchpoints with our corporate services and activities that could be improved to help ensure the best possible patient experiences (for example, improving the readability—or you can say literacy level—of educational materials for patient use). We realized we needed to rethink how these experiences shaped patients’ satisfaction with us.
Addressing some of these largest challenges required forming atypical cross-functional teams in order to spearhead solutions—first approaches that identified clear outcomes—such as easier-to-understand educational materials, and apply a holistic approach to delivering on it. Through this work, we have identified several key concepts that help build internal collaboration, break down silos, and inspire cross-functional work that can drive solutions:
1. Build empathy for what patients experience
Why: When employees can better empathize with the challenges patients face, they can genuinely put those patients first.
One of the efforts we undertook to build empathy was an almost real-time simulation over three days that brought together participants from across the organization to foster dialogue about how all of our departments could work together better to understand patients with overactive bladder (OAB). Volunteers were given a water bottle and asked to drink 96 ounces of water a day to simulate the urgency and frequency of OAB symptoms. They received text messages throughout the day reminding them to do things like pack extra clothes in case of an accident. Other texts asked them to get up and excuse themselves immediately from whatever they were doing to mimic the disruption OAB can cause in a patient’s life.
Participants reported being deeply affected by the experience. One noted that prior to this simulation, he primarily associated OAB patients with subjects in a trial, versus now thinking about them more empathetically as individuals. He was excited about how he might bring the insights he gained into his future work. Participants also forged new bonds with their colleagues in other departments, based on the shared experience.
2. Inspire compassion for their everyday challenges
Why: We can build a deeper understanding of living with various medical conditions by viewing them through the eyes of others. We can use that deeper compassion to better understand the need to work across disciplines to help patients.
Late last year, we hosted our first Patient & Caregiver Week, in which more than 1,000 employees across functions, departments, and disciplines participated. We brought in patients and caregivers to hear their stories. We personalized it even more by including Astellas employees who volunteered to share their own patient and caregiver experiences. It was a powerful experience to hear firsthand from individuals living with gastric cancer or OAB, or caring for a parent with acute myeloid leukemia. It was even more powerful to hear friends and colleagues share their painful and frustrating battles. It also reminded us that we are all patients and caregivers and challenged us to incorporate those experiences and sentiments as we approach our daily work.
Afterward, 83% of those who participated said they understood more about how their work contributes to the patient experience—and the need to reach out more to others in the organization to work together to keep the patient at the center of what we do.
3. Create clarity to improve the patient experience
Why: We can introduce technologically advanced, innovative products, but if our communications about them are too complex, too technical, or too academic to follow, the potential benefits may not be realized.
To ensure our communications enhance the patient experience, we brought together teams from across the company in varying functions and divisions to build principles and guidelines for our patient-facing communications. From product inserts to marketing materials, informed consent forms to press releases, we’re working to reduce the lingo and technical language when we can (keeping in mind regulatory requirements, of course) and presenting information in more user-friendly formats to encourage better patient knowledge and understanding.
4. Invite participation to ensure successful clinical trials
Why: Making it easier for more people to become aware of clinical trials and understand their intent will broaden the population of those who want to take part.
So we looked at how we could make the experience of participating more accessible, efficient, and convenient. Our hoped-for solution? To make it easier for patients to learn online about options available to them. We assembled a cross-functional team, with experts from development, legal, and regulatory; we included our medical writing team to help us ensure content would be understood; and we invited staff from the organization I lead, as well as information systems, quality assurance, and other functions that don’t traditionally collaborate. Each was motivated by working together to solve a problem and, consequently, provide a better experience for patients. The project went from concept to launch in 90 days, which, for a regulated industry like ours, is a testament to the power of bringing all these people together aligned around a common goal.
5. Address service gaps that impact how an organization engages with patients
Why: The first word in the phrase “customer service” is “customer.” But to better serve the customer, we needed to take a more holistic approach.
We took a hard look at our efforts and recognized a gap between the empathetic and seamless experience we wanted to offer patients and caregivers and the reality of what we were offering. We saw that our various departments were building customer-facing touchpoints, but from the customer’s point of view, it was not the seamless experience they should be having. We knew we could do more to establish higher customer service standards, better processes, and integrated systems across Astellas.
So, for example, we redesigned interactive voice response and streamlined patient inquiry processes to connect patients and caregivers to the right person immediately; used health literacy principles to make our contact information more patient-friendly; introduced a patient phone support survey to see if patient needs have been met and to assess quality of our patient services; and began to provide live-agent clinical trials support. These efforts required a strong cross-collaboration across Astellas, between scientific teams, back office support teams, call center teams, as well as legal and operational colleagues. Sharing a common goal to ensure that our interactions with patients and caregivers were as empathic and seamless as possible, we were able to entirely redesign the process to better serve the patient.
Breaking down silos to better serve patients is an ongoing effort, changing along with technology, medical breakthroughs, customer expectations, and more.
All of us at Astellas—but I hope across our entire industry—are identifying and addressing issues within our own walls to drive a more unified approach to our work and a more purposeful focus on the patient experience. As we’ve found at Astellas, when we succeed at breaking down barriers, we’re a nimbler, faster-moving organization that is better able to deliver even more value into the marketplace by putting patients firmly at the center of everything we do and working together to deliver on that promise.