SOMERS POINT - Ten years ago, the idea of developing a patient-doctor relationship was nonexistent, but a new culture in hospitals is growing, one that focuses on what patients want.

"We almost didn't talk about patients at all," said Charles Roche, III, Shore Medical Center's medical director who practices internal medicine. "We didn't talk about how they felt, or how to treat them. It was all about doctors and diseases. Now it's completely turned on itself, if it was 80 percent about doctors before now its 80 percent about the patients."

The natural light, warmth of the wood, art and lounges at Shore Medical Center are all part of an effort to change the culture of hospitals, said CEO Ron Johnson.Putting patients and families at the center of attention is the reason Shore recentely received Planetree designation.

Planetree is a nonprofit founded in 1978 to "personalizing, humanizing and demystifying the healthcare experience," according to its website. It sets standards for how medical centers should create a less sterilized environment and designated Shore the 39th organization in the world to meet all the standards since 2007, when the designation program began.

Tami Kitchen, a nurse of 20 years and an administrative director at Shore, said it has been a huge shift for the staff.

The focus has changed from identifying a person by what is on their chart or by their bed number to interacting with the patients and creating personal relationships, Kitchen said.

"One of the hugest hurdles was changing visiting hours. It used to be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Now, we ask the patient if they want to have visitors or (we advise) family members to wait in the waiting room if the patient (is too weak)," Kitchen said. "As nurses, we break a lot of rules or we do what we have to do in the moment, and you shouldn't have to feel like you are breaking rules. It's about doing what is right (while caring for a patient)."

Roche said he thinks the medical field has come a long way in accepting this change.

"Everyone is uncomfortable coming out of medical school at first because, for better or worse, they give you a heady feel when you are in school. You are given a white coat, and you are going to be sent out into the world and diagnose patients and save the world," Roche said. "Pretty quickly you learn that is not how things work. You have to meet patients where they are and meet their goals. That is more important and a better outcome than just letting them live longer or getting them to better numbers on paper."

The traditional relationship used to be based on the doctor's expertise. In a time when individuals choose their own lifestyles and have different religious beliefs or medical approaches, including alternative medicines, doctors are forced to abide by the individual's choice, Kitchen said.

"I can see two patients coming in with the same list of illnesses and, according to the books, they should be on the exact same medicines. But one of them might be on 15 pills and the other on two, but that's because they have drawn their own line in the sand when dealing with their doctor," Roche said.

He remembers when he first started practicing he was proud of his white coat and of being the all-knowing expert, but over time the respect he receives working with the patients and developing relationships is more rewarding, he said.

"It's an adjustment. You come out of school thinking that people are going to step aside as you come down the hallway, and everyone calls you doctor all the time. I made my nieces and nephews call me that (at first). But, you can extend yourself and meet the patients and get some genuine interpersonal relations. That is a big part of our day now," Roche said.

The time being spent with patients has decreased the number seen in a day, he said. Instead of breezing through a list of 60 patients a day, he spends more time with each patient and stays later in the day to do so.

Johnson explained that there are many programs and phases patients go through now, which include an advisory session with each patient and their family, as well as developing a care plan throughout their stay.

Kitchen added that now that patients tend to have shorter stays at the hospital as well, which means nurses have less time to develop relationships.

Shore has worked on meeting the standards during the past three years, which includes specific designs and space in new wings. The cost was moderate, and complying with the standards came from the creation of various programs at the hospital that create better relationships with patients, Johnson said.

Contact Anjalee Khemlani:

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