Patient engagement is a critical development in modern health care. Continuous advancements in treatment and research are essential, but often these advancements overlook the fact that when patients are actually involved in their own care, when they understand and are understood by their care team, they are more likely to get the best care…for them as an individual.
There are a wide variety of patient engagement initiatives underway such as patient advisory groups, greater patient access to medical information through portals, patient-centred co-design, collaboration on improving health systems and so on. Health care providers and organizations have been successful in developing many of these approaches and will continue to improve them with each new experience.
The central problem, in my opinion, is that patient engagement means different things to different people. As often is the case with a popular concept, the term ‘patient engagement’ has almost become ubiquitous and is starting to lose real meaning.
What if there was a common goal running through all these patient engagement activities? What if we reframe the discussion to ask “What does the fully engaged patient look like”? We need a clearly defined goal in order to set objectives and refine our efforts in their pursuit.
Keep in mind, this theoretical ‘engaged patient’ is all of us. It’s you, your family, friends – everyone you care about. If this reflects how you want to approach interactions with care providers, then we’re on the right track.
When faced with a health concern, some people research every detail online, while others simply ask their doctor what to do. Some will try homeopathy, others will look to pharma for the miracle cure. We’re all different, and one size will never fit all, so we must all be in charge of our own health. I once heard a wise doctor say “Your health is my concern, but it’s your responsibility”.
In reality not everyone has the same access to health care nor the opportunity to become a fully engaged patient. Social determinants of health such as income, housing, social environments, and education have a very real impact on health outcomes.
As such, there is probably a scale of how engaged someone can potentially become, and this vision of the 100% fully engaged patient isn’t realistic for everyone. But just for fun, let’s shoot for the stars here.
What might the fully engaged patient look like?
- Has a real understanding of the health concerns they’re facing and the available options
- Is prepared to ask their health care providers all the questions that matter to them, regardless of how big or small they may seem
- Is confident enough in themselves and their understanding of the entire situation to participate in true shared decision-making
- Utilizes the power of access to their own health records and information
- Keeps track of their own symptoms, experiences, and questions for discussion with care providers
And this perfect-world fully engaged patient understands that they play the central role in their own health:
- Sets their own outcome goals based on what’s important to them
- Takes actions within their control, such as improving eating habits and increasing activity levels, because they understand the impact of these actions on their overall health
- Adheres to treatment plans because they see the value and importance of doing so
One challenge with patient engagement is that it’s hard to measure, but this is far more challenging if we aren’t specific about what we are trying to achieve. This engaged patient might feel like a theoretical concept, but it’s fundamentally about people, our loved ones, our patients, and ourselves.