In the early 1990s, at the outset of my career as a psychologist in medical settings, I spent 5 years at a physical medicine rehabilitation hospital on what I was sure was a team of perennial all-stars. During our weekly clinical meetings, daily curbside dialogues in the hallways and cafeteria, and co-care in the PT gym and patients’ rooms, I always marveled at the competence, youthful confidence, and innumerable skills of the doggedly optimistic physical and occupational therapists, canny speech therapists, hardy nurses, and street-smart social workers on my assigned squad. At the head of this team was usually a gray-haired, white-coated physiatrist, wizened and patient, offering subtle guidance to team members but generally allowing us to practice our crafts. Not that harmony always reigned. We would have table-pounding debates about treatment plans. Rivalries simmered about who best evaluated cognition or ambulatory status. But the team worked proudly and effectively and patients usually thrived.
I’ve been waxing nostalgic recently about those years because of family medicine’s ostensible move toward team-based care. The patient-centered medical home (PCMH) is intended to be a collaborative, integrated, multidisciplinary place where family physicians work shoulder to shoulder with behaviorists, pharmacists, case managers, social workers, medical assistants, and administrators to deliver improved, cost-effective, chronic disease management. But the culture of family medicine, in my opinion, is not yet team driven. What is second nature in physical medicine rehab is of necessity first nature for us—a new set of spiffy dress-up clothes without the well-worn comfort of habitual garb. I think there is much we can learn from rehab medicine’s decades-long experience with teams:
Multidisciplinary isn’t interdisciplinary. An oft-cited truism in the field of integrating behavioral health services into primary care is that “co-location isn’t integration”—that is, proximity by itself doesn’t lead diverse clinicians to work in tandem toward better patient outcomes. I think this truism extends to team-based care in general. A multidisciplinary PCMH just connotes different disciplines under the same roof, which are working on their own respective and possibly divergent goals. Rehab was distinctly interdisciplinary—different disciplines working on commonly agreed upon goals. I believe that the PCMH likewise needs to be interdisciplinary to best blend the talents and skills of multiple specialists striving together. That means, like rehab, there needs to be processes in place for ongoing team communication and decision making. (An EHR alone won’t suffice.) That means somehow creating team meeting times out of the hectic primary care work flow.