When I underwent treatment for thyroid cancer in college, one of my biggest challenges was putting my life into the hands of my doctors. What made me feel empowered was reading through the available literature on thyroid cancer management. Information helped me regain a sense of agency when my cellular division had gotten out of control.
As I saw firsthand, empowerment can play an important role in high-quality care and can help improve the patient experience. Here's a look at what it entails and how you can build it into your practice.
The value of patient empowerment
While a universally accepted definition may be hard to come by, one eHealth ERA project defined patient empowerment as the philosophy that "optimal outcomes of health care interventions are achieved when patients become active participants in the health care process."
What does active participation look like? The formula for achieving it involves an interplay among four key elements:
Information. Possessing knowledge about health conditions and options for management helps build a foundation for informed decision-making and healthcare participation.
Access. Having the resources needed to manage care — from being able to afford medications to knowing where to find high-quality educational material — empowers patients to enact healthcare plans that align with their goals.
Engagement. Being actively involved in decision-making and health management is a cornerstone of patient empowerment.
Agency. Having the ability to act and make decisions in the healthcare process according to one's goals and values puts empowerment into action.
Patient care should be a collaborative process driven by mutual respect. Patient empowerment facilitates this dynamic by restoring balance to the patient-provider relationship. It also provides clinical benefits: A study in PLoS One found that empowerment is linked to improved medication adherence, and it may lead to better clinical outcomes in chronic conditions such as diabetes, according to a study in the Journal of Diabetes Research.
Empowerment benefits you as a doctor, too. You want to deliver high-quality care, and your patients want to feel heard and respected. When they are active participants in care discussions, your mutual goals align and everyone's satisfaction improves.
5 Ways to empower patients
Given these benefits, doctors should strive to facilitate patient empowerment. You can do so in a few ways:
1. Offer patients treatment options
In my case, my surgeon gave me the option to have one definitive surgery or a limited surgery that would likely necessitate a second procedure later on. Although neither option was particularly appealing, having a choice made me feel supported, in control and valuable to my care team. Ensure that your patients know both what options they have and what the consequences of those options may be, so that they can make the most informed decision.
2. Direct patients to financial resources
While you might not be able to help your patients navigate the health care marketplace to make informed decisions about health insurance before they see you, you can talk them through their financial options. You can also point them to resources such as GoodRx, which allows patients to compare medication costs between prescription drug retailers. Giving patients these resources promotes access and agency by helping them align their healthcare needs with their financial means in the way that makes the most sense to them.
3. Refer patients to educational resources
Information gives patients the tools to engage more actively in their care. With the internet at their fingertips, it may be useful to guide your patients to credible sources, such as the JAMA Network's "Patient Information" pages, which cover a variety of conditions. When patients know how to learn more about their health issues, they may come to appointments more confidently able to talk about their conditions and ask important questions.
4. Encourage the use of patient portals
Access to electronic health records helps patients become more active in shared decision-making. Additionally, patients may share their data with other health care providers and can potentially reduce unnecessary repeat blood work and scans. Apple's Health Records, for example, allows patients to combine electronic health record data from multiple sources, including patient portals. Of course, the burden of health data aggregation and organization should not rest solely on patients, as Dr. Eric Beam argues on KevinMD.
5. Inform patients about digital tools
For patients with access to smartphones, many apps are available to help track and manage chronic health conditions, such as atrial fibrillation and diabetes. These tools empower patients to be active participants in their care by putting critical information literally in their hands. Healthcare apps allow patients to set and monitor progress toward their goals, making incentives and consequences more tangible. This also puts them on better footing for their interactions at the doctor's office, since they will have data to back up their questions and concerns.
In my case, my doctors helped me feel empowered by tailoring my care to what I needed as a scared 20-year-old with a medical background — ample information, treatment options, time, patience and respect. Years later, I still remember their exact words at many points in my care. I aim to let their exemplary care inform my own practice.
Make empowering patients part of your commitment to providing high-quality care. When your patients are empowered, everyone benefits.