Putting Patients in the Driver’s Seat

Even within one of the world’s busiest hospitals, each patient has a unique voice. Stanford Healthcare’s Judy Kaufman is listening.

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  • Written by
    Robin Hindery
  • Photographed by
    Jack Hutcheson

As a young girl growing up in Connecticut with five siblings and conservative, traditional, Italian-Catholic parents, Judy Kaufman had a vision for her life that was meaningful but modest in scale. “The expectation was that my sisters and I would become either teachers or nurses, while my brother would become a doctor or lawyer,” she reflects. “I thought that would indeed be where I would end up—as a nurse at Yale.”

After graduating from nursing school in Boston, she did just that, working in Yale’s ICU. But it wasn’t long before she was recruited to the West Coast, where Stanford was experiencing a critical shortage of ICU nurses.

While working in Stanford’s ICU and later the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit, Kaufman began volunteering with the nonprofit Interplast, which performs humanitarian surgical missions around the world. Her involvement led her to Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, and ultimately changed the course of her career in healthcare.

She went on to receive degrees in both medical anthropology and health education, and simultaneously realized she was ready to move on from bedside nursing. “I eventually left to work as an RN health educator,” she shares. “During that time, I heard about an opportunity to work on a pilot program at Stanford to help patients navigate the healthcare system and coordinate their often-complex care; it seemed to perfectly combine my background experience and interest.”

“When patients reflect on their hospital/clinic experience and feel like they were supported, that we kept them well-informed, and they left no longer intimidated by the process, that’s also success for us.”

Kaufman became Stanford Health Care’s Director of Patient Relationship Management, a role based around patient-centered communication and building a culture of care and compassion—and one she never imagined when entering the field. “It used to be that the hospital and/or doctor would dictate the patient’s experience,” she notes, “but our program has changed the industry standard and has made the patient a co-equal partner with their healthcare team.”

“The real key to excellent care is communication,” she continues. “I know it might seem obvious, but we continue to create more effective ways for patients to reduce their stress while having easier access to all of the information they need to make decisions about their future along with their trusted healthcare professionals.”

The new Stanford Hospital that opened last year is an example of implementing technology that has the patient experience in mind, she says, citing a personalized MyHealth app that acts as each patient’s “digital companion” during and after their hospital stay, as well as in-room features that allow patients to control things like temperature, lighting, and request help all without leaving their beds. “This app allows me and my team to spot any patient that might require additional attention or hand-holding to get them through their care,” she says.

Successes in Kaufman’s field come in all shapes and sizes. But she says she feels special pride when a patient with a complex condition feels his or her care was seamless and “that they were involved with decisions along the way and in control of their journey.” She continues, “When patients reflect on their hospital/clinic experience and feel like they were supported, that we kept them well-informed, and they left no longer intimidated by the process, that’s also success for us.”

Kaufman expresses surprise over some of her career’s twists and turns, but her path directly aligns with her personal values—values she has tried to pass along to the three children she shares with husband David, a Stanford physician. “Kindness and a willingness to engage underpins all of my advice to them, along with a desire to take risks and take advantage of windows of opportunity,” she says. “I try to encourage them to challenge themselves, to lean in to their own discomfort when considering making a change or transition. No matter the outcome, it is an opportunity for personal and possible professional growth.”