An Interview with Kenneth P. Anderson

The physician/writer discusses the future of American healthcare.

An Interview with Kenneth P. Anderson

Kenneth P. Anderson’s book, Saving the Heart of American Healthcare: How Patients and Their Doctors Can Mend a Broken System, digs deep into the historical context of how physicians are trained in the U.S. today and looks forward to how our healthcare system could be better suited to what people want in the future.

As chief operating officer for the Health Research & Educational Trust of the American Hospital Association, the physician had the opportunity to drive programs and to identify the questions that need to be answered. Anderson’s book is a search for answers, a look at processes and tools, and an attempt to understand the meaning of health.

You start your book with an experience you had with healthcare in Costa Rica that forged your identity as a healer and thinker. Is healthcare in America unique to Americans, or is it generalizable to other places?

I think that all humans have an innate desire to achieve a state of good health; different populations may have differing access to healthcare tools such as diagnostic instruments, healthcare providers, and even to differing access to life-sustaining and life-improving medications and other treatments.

For some countries, people may embrace a slow and stepwise approach to the use of expensive diagnostics while, in others, such as the United States, expectations run high for immediate access to the highest technically advanced services. These expectations help to set the varying definitions of what is “high-quality healthcare” and even create impressions of what outcomes may be viewed as more or less important.

Overall, people all over the world desire to be healthy, and while we try to define “high value healthcare” as producing the most outstanding health outcomes while utilizing resources efficiently, health can be elusive for many people.

As an osteopathic physician, how does your outlook on health and illness differ from other healthcare providers?

I was blessed with the opportunity of being exposed to some of the most human healthcare providers in the world. As outstanding clinicians, these individuals realized that the “best” doctor was one who could balance the technical proficiency of being a modern physician with the ability to care for a person who was ill or injured using an empathic and caring-based model.

I could feel the holistic approach that osteopathy provided from the beginning of my first day of osteopathic medical training. With a person-centered focus of helping people to maximize their health status, I learned that “healing” meant far more than providing the correct antibiotic for an infection.

The ability to connect person-to-person across the short length of a stethoscope meant that I needed to understand the whole person in front of me and not just the textbook definition of the disease state. I saw my patients as part of my family, and I treated them with the respect of listening to “what mattered to them” rather than just “what was wrong with them.” I believe that osteopathic medicine helped me to bring out the best in my abilities to connect with my patients.

Is the book format an effective one for advancing complex views of health and illness?

I wanted to capture a great deal of the human nature that is really at the center of healthcare. I wanted to give my personal view that the personal mission that we all carry with us as we enter the profession of care provision should remain front and center, and that we should recognize the many external influences that have tended to interrupt our abilities to maintain that strong personal mission.

Extrinsic rewards, policy changes and regulatory oversight, and a production-based approach to the “business” of healthcare delivery can quickly produce a state where healthcare providers and healthcare recipients are left with a cold and technical approach to what could be a much more meaningful relationship based on sharing a highly personal care experience. The only people who can demand more from this relationship are those who are at the center, the very people experiencing the care experience together.

Your writing is quite descriptive for nonfiction. How did you learn to write?

I’ve always enjoyed the spoken and written word. During my undergraduate career, I had the privilege of taking courses from some of the best writers in the world who were part of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. I soon realized that I would likely not become the greatest poet of the 21st century, but that did not detract from the love that I have with the English language. I’ve written short stories, poems, and now a book, and each effort has been to primarily entertain myself. If others read my work and walk away with something that will help them along their life journey, then that is the cherry on top for me.

Tyler Cymet, DO, is the chief of Clinical Education at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and a change management consultant for the Michigan State University Institute for Global Health. He is also the author of Health Info to Go: General Medicine and Addictionary: Guide to Drug User Terminology.

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