The Rise of Interprofessional Teams in Healthcare
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“Team-based care is about enabling professionals to bring their whole selves and all their skills to the table.”Kate Judge, Executive Director of the American Nurses Foundation
Healthcare involves many more people than the physician and the patient. The modern healthcare team is a broadly interprofessional one, including nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, physical therapists, nutritionists, counselors, and social workers, just to name a few. And that team will include even more professionals in the future, as the boundaries of healthcare extend beyond traditional settings and reach out into the wider world.
The rise of interprofessional teams in healthcare represents a paradigm shift in how care is delivered. A team-based approach centers around the patient instead of a hierarchical system, with a physician at the top. Different professionals can step in as their expertise is needed. This diversity is a virtue with measurable benefits: research has shown that teams with a wide range of experiences and perspectives achieve better results.
But achieving effective interprofessional collaboration is not as easy as flipping a switch. Changes in academic curricula, organizational structures, and individual attitudes are all needed to make the team-based approach the new standard of American healthcare. If done correctly, patients and providers alike will benefit.
Read on to learn more about the rise of interprofessional teams in healthcare.
Meet the Expert: Kate Judge
Kate Judge is the executive director of the American Nurses Foundation. She has over 30 years of leadership experience in healthcare and non-profit communication, resource generation, and management. Her work has supported large and small organizations in education, healthcare, and human service within the United States and abroad.
Judge became the ED of the ANA, the philanthropic arm of the American Nurses Association and American Nurses Credentialing Center, in 2012, to lead its expansion. The Foundation, one of the first to invest in nursing research, now has a diverse program portfolio focusing on nurses’ health and the impact on patients, leadership development, health policy, and elevating the image of nurses. As ED, Judge helped launch the Nurses on Boards Coalition, the Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation campaign, and the Reimagining Nursing Initiative. She also served as an executive producer for Defining Hope, a 2017 documentary about end-of-life care and the unique expertise of nurses.
The Power of Interprofessional Teams in Healthcare
“Team-based care is about enabling professionals to bring their whole selves and all their skills to the table,” Judge says.
The high-performing team is now widely recognized as essential for constructing a more patient-centered, coordinated, and effective healthcare delivery system (NAM 2012). And an effective delivery system is precisely what America currently lacks, as it faces down the twin crises of a shortage of care providers and an increasingly older, sicker population. Team-based systems help bridge the gap by allowing a wider range of health professionals to improve their area of expertise to provide critical services.
“Healthcare in this country is struggling with having enough providers, enough nurses and physicians,” Judge says. “And part of being able to provide more access and better care is letting everyone practice at the top of their license, and bringing other professionals to the table.”
Interprofessional teams benefit patients by putting them at the center of care and taking a holistic approach that caters to their wide range of needs. But the team-based approach also benefits those working within it. Allowing a wider range of professionals to contribute more consistently to care and practice to the full extent of their education and training makes the healthcare setting a more attractive workplace. Team-based care can thus create a virtuous cycle, drawing in additional professionals to support it.
“Everyone who’s in care delivery is there because they want to make a difference in someone’s life, and they want to do meaningful work,” Judge says. “And when you’re in an environment where your skills, knowledge, and expertise are respected and included in assessment and decision-making and interventions, then that’s a place you want to be.”
Overcoming Barriers to Interprofessional Collaboration in Healthcare
Interprofessional collaboration is not plug-and-play. Shared responsibility without clearly defined roles and effective team communication methods is a recipe for disaster. Other barriers to interprofessional collaboration include a lack of interprofessional training and poor recognition of other professionals’ skills and contributions (JIC 2021). Power imbalances can also be a hurdle, particularly those involving gender, race, ethnicity, and title. Indeed, the shift to team-based care is a large one, and not without its critics. But the barriers to adoption are not insurmountable.
“What we saw during the pandemic was things that people thought would take a long time to change, or would maybe never change, actually changed really quickly when there was a sense of urgency and will,” Judge says. “We need to keep that sense of urgency and will alive, because we can’t afford to have some of the worst health outcomes in the globe, being the kind of resourced country that we are.”
Interprofessional collaboration needs to start where healthcare education starts. Different roles can train together early on, not only to prepare to work together but to better understand what each member of the team does best. This type of cross-professional training is already being incorporated with nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and physicians, at universities across the country. The number of schools, and the range of professionals, will expand in the future.
“We’re at a tipping point in education, where there are still many educators who learned and practiced in an environment that wasn’t interprofessionally collaborative,” Judge says. “But as we shift to a new model, with people who never knew any different, interprofessional collaboration is going to be the expectation, and I’m counting on the next generation of nurses to make it the standard.”
The Future of Interprofessional Teams in Healthcare
The future of healthcare is the continued adoption of interprofessional, team-based models. It’s also likely that the team will grow to incorporate more professionals, especially as healthcare expands out of traditional settings to meet patients where they are, either at home or in non-traditional settings.
Some of these changes are already underway. Johns Hopkins School of Nursing’s CAPABLE program integrates services between an occupational therapist (OT), a registered nurse (RN), and a handyperson to work with older adults to develop plans that change behaviors to improve health, mobility, independence, and safety. Adding a non-medical professional to the theme has yielded measurable benefits: preliminary research has found that CAPABLE teams save on healthcare costs, enhance patient motivation and safety, and reduce health disparities.
“My hope is that what a team is, in the future, will be much more broadly defined,” Judge says.
Team-based care is also expanding to the virtual arena. The American Nurses Foundation (ANF) has funded a pilot program at Ohio State University that uses VR and AR to simulate experiences from different points of view. Judge relates an experience of using VR to learn what it looks and sounds like to be a homeless person during a police raid; the possibilities for healthcare professionals are practically endless.
“Technology can enable us to see things in a different way, so we can get at some of our biases, some of our lack of experience, and truly connect with the people needing our care,” Judge says.
The future of healthcare is in interprofessional teams, and the shift is happening now. With continued investment, more academic programs will move to interprofessional models, baking in collaboration at the training level and setting the new standard of care in America as a team-based one.
“Nothing changes unless you take the time to invest in it,” Judge says. “We need to invest in communications, in how clinicians and other team members learn together, and in simulations that look at a problem and have people share their own perspectives to really help the group understand that team care is better care—better for the patient, and better for themselves.”