Texas A&M University junior Sunjay Letchuman ’22 is the first Mays Business School undergraduate to have a manuscript published in a major medical journal.  He co-authored the article, “Trust-Based Partnerships Are Essential—and Achievable—in Healthcare Service,” with Dr. Leonard L. Berry, who holds the M.B. Zale Chair in Retailing and Marketing Leadership, and two leading clinicians. The article will appear in the June 2 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Letchuman, who is enrolled in Mays’ Business Honors program, appreciated the support and guidance he received from Berry. “Publishing in a journal like Mayo Clinic Proceedings is essentially an unattainable achievement for an undergraduate student, so this has been an enormous privilege for me. Texas A&M professors perform top-tier research all across campus, and it is rewarding for Texas A&M students to perform any kind of research here,” said the Texas A&M’s University Scholar and Undergraduate Research Scholar. “But working with Dr. Berry is a distinct honor. Dr. Berry is a leader in improving healthcare service, and his work has been cited more times than any other Texas A&M professor. For a student like me who is committed to learning how to improve our healthcare industry, working with Dr. Berry is a dream come true.”

The article also marks the first time that Berry, a University Distinguished Professor and Regents Professor, has published an article with an undergraduate. “Sunjay is one of the finest students I have taught in my career—extremely smart but also intellectually curious, intuitive, and a hard worker,” said Berry, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston, MA. “Following the end of the healthcare course he took from me he asked if he could collaborate on a future article; I had never collaborated with an undergraduate student before on research. But if I was ever going to do it, he was the student.”

Creating the manuscript also gave Letchuman, who is accepted to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the opportunity to work with two leading clinicians:

  • Rana L.A. Awdish, the director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Program for the Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine of Henry Ford Health System. She also serves as the medical director for Care Experience at Henry Ford Health System.
  • Karina Dahl Steffensen, a medical oncologist, and professor, and director of the Center for Shared Decision Making in the Department of Clinical Oncology at Vejle Hospital in Vejle, Denmark.

The co-authors’ article suggests that creating trust-based partnerships between patients and the clinicians who care for them have never been more important as the world’s healthcare systems continue to be challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. Offering a vision for healthcare’s role as a service provider, the paper’s core argument is that patients’ trust of their doctors is about more than the science.  The co-authors write, “…excellent healthcare requires more than mere trust in clinicians’ professional ability; it centers on both competence and partnership. This multidimensional trust involves patients’ confidence that a clinician is interested in them as a person, not just as a patient; will be a reliable, caring partner in preventing, diagnosing, and treating disease; and will offer support when curative treatment is not possible.”

This renewed focus on trust between clinicians and patients was underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic when clinicians were placed in a role of providing extraordinary support and clear communication when families were unable to enter intensive care units. The co-authors argued that the role of trust is a central issue in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines since many members of racial and ethnic minority groups have long-standing—and well-founded—concerns about healthcare.

The co-authors believe that creating and nourishing this deeper level of partnership between clinicians and patients will require the implementation of four, interrelated service-quality concepts: empathetic creativity, discretionary effort, seamless service, and mitigation of fear.

Health organizations that prioritize these concepts proactively adopt key institutional policies and procedures, including investing in organizational culture; hiring health professionals based on their values as well as their skills; promoting continuous learning; honoring the importance of language in all care interactions; offering patients “go-to” sources that provide timely assistance; and creating systems and structures that are designed to encourage trust.

Letchuman, who will have a health policy internship with the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in summer 2021, plans to use what he is learning at Mays to support his medical career and to influence healthcare policy. “The paper we wrote really boils down to how we can practice better medicine by improving trust between patients and clinicians. As a future clinician, it will be my duty to implement the service concepts and practices outlined in our paper,” he said. “In a broader sense, working on this paper has taught me the value of bringing a humanistic, empathy-driven approach to improving patient care. These are lessons that I will carry forward in my own career. By designating healthcare as one of its three Grand Challenges, the Mays Business School has cultivated an environment where business students are driven to make a difference in healthcare.”