Notable News February

At this point in the year many of us have already given up on our New Year’s resolutions, but if your resolution was to lose weight this year, it might be time to revisit it, especially if you are a young adult. A study reported by cnn.com reveals that obesity-related cancers are increasing among the 24 to 49 year old age group, and the risk is increasing at progressively younger ages. There are six cancers that showed increases in younger adults — colorectal, endometrial, gallbladder, kidney, pancreatic, and multiple myeloma. These cancers are traditionally found in people in their 60s and 70s, but now the risk of these cancers in millennials is almost double what it was for baby boomers when they were the same age. More information about the study and the connection between obesity and cancer can be found here.

The increase in cancer rates in younger adults is alarming, but being able to detect the disease at an earlier stage increases the chance for survival. Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that is difficult to diagnose early. It is almost always diagnosed at an advanced stage and about 95 percent of people diagnosed with it will die of it. Now, Norwegian researchers may have a clue into better understanding pancreatic cancer which could eventually lead to earlier diagnosis, reports sciencenordic.com. The researchers learned that there may be a connection between blood type and pancreatic cancer. People with blood type A have a slightly increased pancreatic cancer risk and people with blood type O seem to have a slight protection from the disease. The differences in risk are small, but the data is consistent to studies in other countries and may provide insight into better understanding the disease. Researchers hypothesize that intestinal flora, the immune system, and digestive enzymes may play a role in the contraction of the disease and give researchers a direction for further study. Learn more here.

While not on the list of cancers being found more often in younger adults, prostate cancer remains the most common cancer among men. Typically, it can be successfully treated, but the cancer often spreads making more aggressive treatment necessary. Unfortunately, there’s been no way of knowing when or if the cancer will spread — until now. There’s a specific gene responsible for the spread of prostate cancer, reports medicalxpress.com, and a study at Rutgers University has found it. The NSD2 gene, which indicates when patients are at high-risk for the cancer to spread, was found through a computer algorithm. Researchers were able to turn off the gene in mice and prevent the cancer from spreading. Being able to identify when the cancer may spread will allow for more targeted treatment and prevention. Also, it might be possible to use the algorithm for other cancers as well, which is good news for everyone. More information about the NSD2 gene and the computer algorithm can be found here.

No matter what age someone gets cancer, pain can often be a side-effect of the cancer itself or of the treatment. Pain occurs in up to 50 percent of people with cancer. Cancer-related pain is real, and it can last long after treatment, but cancer.gov says that there is renewed interest in seeking new, non-addictive pain medications, as well as other pain management solutions, for cancer patients and survivors. Medications are being developed, and options such as cannabinoids (chemicals found in marijuana), are being explored to treat bone pain and pain in the head and neck from oral cancers. Pain is also a side-effect of treatments such as chemotherapy, and prevention is being sought for that type of pain as well. Non-drug treatments that are being considered are yoga, Tai Chi, and mindfulness meditation. There is much, much more to be explored about the potential for pain management, but more about what is already being done can be found here.

Alleviating the pain of cancer whether through pain management, early diagnosis, or preventing the disease from spreading is definitely a step in the right direction for ensuring that all patients are empowered patients.

Advice For Newly Diagnosed Patients #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on advice for newly diagnosed patients. The #patientchat community came together and shared their best advice and tips.

The Top Tweets and Advice…

 

Ask Questions

 

 

 

 

Seek a Second Opinion

 

 

 

 

Stay Informed


Full Chat

Finding Your Voice #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on finding your voice and what stops patients from seeking a second opinion.

A second opinion is crucial to prevent misdiagnosis or unnecessary procedures or surgeries. A study done by Mayo Clinic showed that as many as 88% of patients who get a second opinion go home with a new or refined diagnosis. That shows that only 12% of patients receive confirmation that their original diagnosis was complete and correct. Still, a lot of patients never get second opinions. So, we wanted to chat about this and see what the Empowered #patientchat community had to say, and these were the main takeaways:

The Top Tweets…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Full Chat

Finding the Funny When the Diagnosis Isn’t

It’s not easy hearing your name and [insert dread diagnosis here]. I know this only too well after having to find the funny in my own journey through cancer. Cancer is, however, most often a diagnosis that you fight to a defined end. What’s it like to find the funny in a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis, or HIV, or diabetes?

I have a number of friends dealing with the life-long aftermath of an MS diagnosis. One of them tipped me off to Jim Sweeney several years ago. Jim’s MS journey started with vision problems in 1985, he was officially diagnosed in 1990, and has been wrestling with the impact of that diagnosis – finding the funny most of the time – ever since. Jim’s body of work includes decades of live improv, and his one-man show “My MS & Me,” which you can hear on the BBC Radio 1 site. His MS has progressed to the point that he’s now in a wheelchair, and his public presence is mostly limited to Twitter, where his profile says he “can’t complain but sometimes do,” and YouTube.

Some other sterling examples of funny-or-die in managing chronic disease are Mark S. King’s fabulously funny My Fabulous Disease blog. Mark is HIV+, so he shares information, resources, and myth-busting about all things HIV in his posts and videos. He’s brutally honest about pretty much everything, with plenty of humor to soften the impact of what it’s really like to live with what anti-retroviral treatments have made a chronic illness, not the death sentence it too often was in the first two decades after the viral epidemic started in 1980.

Then there’s the “laugh out loud at the absurdity” Six Until Me site from Kerri Marrone Sparling, who writes about her life as a Type 1 diabetic. She covers everything from exceedingly random TSA security agent behavior when confronted with diabetes-related medical devices, to “pregnant while diabetic” to dealing with the emotional impact of living with a busted pancreas, all with a good dose of highly-readable snark.

How much courage does it take to laugh out loud, in public, at an incurable disease? Jim, and Mark, and Kerri certainly have courage – and comedy chops! – at the level required.

On the provider side, there are a number of docs who are breaking up the waiting rooms and wards.

The most visible of these comedic clinicians is Dr. Zubin Damania, a/k/a ZDoggMD  – “Slightly Funnier Than Placebo” was his tagline for years, before he shifted to “The Voice of Health 3.0.” ZDogg is a hospital medicine specialist who’s built an empire of snark over the last decade plus, some G-rated and some most definitely NSFW. His videos alone guarantee hours of laughter, and he’s one of the best users of Facebook Live around.

I’ve even found a scholarly article entitled The Use of Humor to Promote Patient Centered Care – be warned, though, that (1) it’s a “scholarly article,” meaning that it’s had all the laughs surgically removed and (2) they want $42.50 for it. You have been warned.

What’s my point here? I actually have two:

1. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Humor keeps us in touch with our humanity, and – unless it’s insult comedy, which I do not recommend in the health care arena, unless it’s insulting bad health care – it helps to comfort others in the same situation.

2. Patients and providers need to work together to help each other find the funny.

If you’re a doctor, don’t just say “you’ve got [insert dread diagnosis here], here’s the treatment plan, call if you have any questions, … NEXT!” Look your patients in the eye, and channel your inner comedian whenever it’s appropriate. If you’re a patient, connect with other people in your situation and see how they’re finding the funny. And help your doctors find their funny. If they can’t find it, you should find another doctor.

We all need to work together to break each other up. Laughter can comfort, can calm, it can even heal.

That’s real disruptive health care, no prescription required.

What Does It Mean To Be An Empowered Patient?

The term “patient empowerment” is among the top buzzwords in health care circles, but as with many buzzwords, they can mean different things to different people.  The term is most often used to emphasize the value of having patients assert greater control over their health and health care.  WHO defines empowerment as “a process through which people gain greater control over decisions and actions affecting their health” (WHO 1998).  This shift is due in large part to the use of technology that facilitates increased patient access to information via the Internet, peer-to-peer sharing, consumer health devices, and mobile apps.

In a recent Twitter chat, I set out to explore what it means to be an empowered patient today.  The global participation of those who shared their views on the topic shows that patient empowerment is something of universal interest.

Seven Essential Components of Patient Empowerment

1. Information

Information is fundamental to the process of patient empowerment.  Rare disease advocate and parent, Anne Lawlor (@22Q11_Ireland) believes that “an informed educated parent is an empowered one.”  Patients make the best decisions when armed with the right information.  To make genuinely informed decisions about our treatment we must have access to the relevant information needed to make those decisions. “Being informed is key to empowerment for me,” says specialist palliative care social worker, Deirdre McKenna (@KennaDeirdre). “Accurate information, clearly communicated and an available space to discuss and explore options and choices.”

Research shows that access to the right information, at the right time, delivered in the right way, leads to an increase in a patient’s desire and ability to take a more active role in decision-making.  Open and transparent communication and access to a patient’s own medical records is a key driver of patient empowerment. Medical Director and Consultant Surgeon, Dermot O’Riordan (@dermotor) believes to truly empower patients “we should be aiming for the “Open Notes” principles of default sharing of all documents.”    As patient advocate and CEO of Medistori Personal Health Record, Olive O’Connor (@MediStori) points out, “the patient is at the very core of every single service they use – they know everything there is to know about themselves, in the home and outside of it. Yet patient records are not kept with them!”

The OpenNotes initiative began in 2010 as a year-long demonstration project, with 105 primary care physicians at three diverse U.S. health care centers inviting 20,000 patients to read visit notes online through patient portals. Findings from the study suggest that shared notes may improve communication, safety, and patient-doctor relationships, and may help patients become more actively involved with their health and health care.  Evidence also shows a sixty percent improvement in the patient’s ability to adhere to medications, a major problem with managing chronic pain conditions. What is key to the discussion on patient empowerment is that this initiative “demonstrates how a simple intervention can have an enormous impact, even absent advanced technology” (my emphasis).

2. Health Literacy

While access to information is a key driver of patient information, health literacy is  defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” (National Library of Medicine).  Health literacy should come before digital literacy. “Health literacy is crucial,” says healthcare analyst, Matthew Loxton (@mloxton), “and you cannot get empowerment without health literacy.” Soo Hun (@soo_cchsc), Programme Manager at the Centre for Connected Health and Social Care, believes “digital is a key aspect but health literacy, even basic literacy is a must. Not all things digital requires tech know-how but all health information requires basic literacy. An app for meds reminder is no use if a patient lacks understanding of why medication is needed in the first place or why they need to be taken promptly.  We spend too little time transferring knowledge to patients.”

This transfer of knowledge is crucial to the empowerment process, according to Olive O’Connor. “At the first point of contact with the patient,” she says, “education on how, what, why, where and when in relation to a condition or medication should be talked through fully. All other tools (digital, leaflets etc.) should come after the conversation which is key to empowerment.”

3. Digital Literacy

Cornell University defines digital literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.”  It’s interesting to note that opinions vary on whether digital literacy is essential to patient empowerment. RN turned patient advocate and health activist, Kayoko Ky Corbet (@kkcorbet) doesn’t believe that “digital literacy is an absolute requirement, but the ability to find accurate relevant information, and understand the information is.” Breast cancer advocate, Jennifer (@vitalfrequencis) agrees that “digital literacy is not fundamental and should not be part of the equation. Empowerment needs to be across all socioeconomic groups. Otherwise…a whole bunch of patients may never be empowered.”

Dermot O’Riordan is convinced that “whilst it sounds nice to say that digital is not ‘necessary’ for patient empowerment, in practice it is going to be pretty tough to do it properly/completely without digital.” Transplant recipient and rare disease patient, Carol McCullough (@Imonlyslightly ) also believes “digital literacy strengthens the empowerment process.” She too points to “access to your medical information online” as a key component of the empowerment process. “Knowing your personal medical data is strength, as is education about your illness,” she says.

Maternity campaigner, SeánaTalbot (@SeanaTalbot) believes that “those with long-term conditions and access to technology have a better chance of accessing information and support.”  Indeed many patients have found in the online world of peer-to-peer healthcare an environment in which they are supported to become a more empowered participant in their healthcare. As I look back on my own empowerment journey, my progress was advanced step-by-step by learning more about my disease initially from doctors, then through Internet searches, and most helpful of  all  through patient peers online. Finding and being part of a patient community can be an important step on the path to empowerment.

4. Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy, as it relates to healthcare, is belief in your ability to effect change in outcomes so that you can achieve your personal health goals. The patient empowerment definition which comes to us from the European Patient Forum describes empowerment as a process that “helps people gain control over their own lives and increases their capacity to act on issues that they themselves define as important.”

Developing a sense of personal control over your health is in itself empowering. The empowered patient is confident in their ability to manage their condition. When unsure about where to go or what to do next they will feel confident to ask questions of the healthcare professionals providing their care.  This confidence comes easier to some than others, and even the most confident may need guidance from their doctors in managing their disease. Endocrinologist, Iris Thiele Isip Tan, MD (@endocrine_witch) points out that “some of my patients are surprised when I teach them how to adjust/titrate insulin doses. Apparently not all MDs ‘allow’ this. Some need handholding because they get anxious about the responsibility.”

Digital leader and physiotherapist, Linda Vernon (@VernonLinda), believes “for authentic patient engagement to occur, we need to establish what the patient brings to the table, something akin to an individual, personal take on Asset-Based Community Development – perhaps we could think of it as Asset-Based Personal Development, supporting the patient to tap into their own internal, community or environmental resources to improve their health and wellbeing.  Engaging patients should be as much about exploring what they can do for themselves and to help the health and care system, as what we professionals can offer to the patient.”

5. Mutual Respect

The healthcare professional is the most important contact point for the patient and the system and (dis)empowerment often manifests in the patient/professional relationship. At the heart of the empowerment approach is seeing the patient-professional relationship as a partnership of equals.  Carol McCullough describes it as a reciprocal process of “mutual respect for what each person knows and being allowed to make informed choices. It is not about command and control.”

This is a partnership approach that seeks to balance clinician expertise with patient preference. It recognizes that while healthcare professionals are the experts in their knowledge of a disease, patients are the experts by experience. The empowerment process is about sharing both knowledge and experience to set new goals and learn with and from each other. Dr Kit Byatt (@Laconic_doc) agrees. “Many patients are experts”, he says, “especially rare disease patients.  I’ve learned from many in my career.”

Building better relationships and seeing the patient as more than ‘just a patient’ was a recurring theme in the Twitter chat. Elena Vaughan (@StigmaStudyIE), who is researching the impact of HIV-related stigma in Ireland, believes that “an empowered patient is treated with respect, involved in shared decision-making regrading care and treatment, and is not patronised. For people with chronic conditions, effective communication, continuity of care and establishing a relationship of trust is very important.” Sometimes, as ME blogger and patient advocate, Sally Burch (@KeelaToo) points out, “not all patients are lacking confidence to speak. The problem is being heard.”

Patient and community advocate, Triona Murphy (@Murpht01) advises doctors to get to know your patients as individuals.  “Know your patient!!…and their family,” she says. “No one size fits all! BUT there was/is still a culture of the ‘person’ stops at the door of the hospital and that person is now a patient.’”  As antibiotic resistance campaigner, Vanessa Carter (@_FaceSA) says, “I might be a patient but I am also a creative director by profession. No one recognises me on that level. They see me as an underdog.”

6. Shared Decision Making

This partnership approach allows for Shared Decision-Making (SDM) – the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together. Examples include decisions about surgery, medications, self-management, and screening and diagnostic tests. There is ample research which suggests that health outcomes are better in patients who are more involved in decisions about their treatment.

In the SDM model, the clinician provides current, evidence-based information about treatment options, describing their risks and benefits, and the patient expresses his or her preferences and values. Matthew Loxton points to how seldom we have metrics to track whether patient goals are being met. “Yet this,” he believes, “is THE most important part of quality.”

7. A Facilitating Environment

Linda Vernon defines patient engagement as “activating the person’s inner assets and supporting them to make the best use of them.” Being supported is a key component of patient empowerment. Many patients would like to take more responsibility for their own health and care, given the opportunities and support to do so. Empowerment does not happen in a vacuum: it is a two-way process. The patient needs a counterpart in the health professional who welcomes the patient’s involvement and knows how to create an enabling healthcare environment. Kayoko Ky Corbet states she became an independent patient advocate when she realized most doctors simply do not have the time (and often skills) to take this facilitating role and promote shared decision-making that patients desperately need. As Patient Critical Co-op (@PatientCritical) puts it, “if you have a patient who wants to advocate for themselves, and become informed, you also need a doctor that respects the patient’s right to share decision making.”

Is It Empowerment or Participation?

Not everyone likes to use the term “empowerment”, as it implies that it is an authority given to someone to do something. “I balk at the idea that professionals can ‘give’ (usually on their terms) power to the powerless,” says Alison Cameron (@allyc375). “We need to create conditions whereby people can “empower” themselves.” Seána Talbot agrees that patient empowerment “doesn’t mean ‘giving’ people power.’ Rather it’s about ‘enabling’ them to recognise and use their power.”

Perhaps the term ‘participation’ (which is a more active state) is preferable? This distinction is important because empowerment cannot be imposed ‘top down’ (although it can be facilitated).  Sharon Thompson (@sharontwriter) believes that “patients should not be pressurised or need to be in a position of ‘power.’ It should be automatic that a patient is central and key to their care. Patients are automatically empowered when they are respected as being people who are entitled to understand and know about their care.”

Neither is patient empowerment about the patient taking full control or shifting responsibility to the patient.  “If the empowerment amounts to abandonment”, says Matthew Loxton, “then the patient’s health goals are not being met. Patient empowerment should never be an excuse for abandoning or burdening the patient.”

Rather, the empowerment approach, as defined by the European Patient Foundation (EPF) “aims to realise the vision of patients as ‘co-producers’ of health and as integral actors in the health system.”  Caregiver Reinhart Gauss (@ReinhartG) agrees that “patient advocates want to work with not against doctors – to share experiences and to grow in knowledge.”  Vanessa Carter is clear that “we still want our doctors, but they are not there 24/7 so patients need the right tools to make self-care possible.”

Equally, it is about recognizing that there are degrees of involvement and not all patients wish to be ‘empowered.’  There is a spectrum of interest in wanting to assume an active role in care – from being passively receptive to fully engaged. It is up to the patients themselves to choose their own level of engagement. Pharmacist Chris Maguire (@chris_magz) sees this choice as the essence of empowerment. Patients “get to decide how much they want to look into things and take control. Or they want to be guided on the journey and have trust in their healthcare providers. But the key is that they decide the level of interaction and are not dictated to.”  Kayoko Ky Corbet agrees that “true patient empowerment should be about helping patients get involved at their highest potential or at the level they choose.” However, she says “it’s also important to keep the option of involvement open. Ideally patients should get opportunities to change their minds to participate in decision-making later.”

Empowerment as an Ongoing Process

Empowerment is a non-binary, non-linear process. Your needs may change over time. You might feel empowered in a certain context, but disempowered in another. Healthcare communicator, Michi Endemann (@MichiEndemann) makes the distinction that “talking about empowerment as a healthy person is quite different than talking about it as a patient.”  As patient advocate, Rachel Lynch (@rachelmlynch) puts it, “it can be quite tiring being empowered when all you want to be is well.” A sentiment echoed by Kathy Kastner (@KathyKastner), founder of Best Endings, who clarifies how “to me ‘empowered’ assumes I’m feeling physically and mentally up to the task of ‘being engaged’. I’ve seen powerhouses who cannot bring themselves to take responsibility for their own health.”

Mental health advocate and co-founder of #DepressionHurts, Norah (@TalentCoop) calls attention to the fragile nature of empowerment. “Even the strongest can quickly feel disempowered by a deterioration in health,” she says. “Fear disempowers. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘can’t’ not ‘won’t.’”

For those who feel ready for a greater degree of participation in their healthcare (and that of their family and loved ones), Jennifer advises that “being willing to self-advocate, along with self-confidence, communication skills, compromise, research skills, and relationship building” are some of the key traits and skills you need to become an empowered patient. Terri Coutee (@6state), patient advocate and founder of DiepCjourney Foundation, adds that “empowered patients do their research, ask questions, go to appointments organized, and take a friend to help listen.”

Barriers to Patient Empowerment and Overcoming Challenges

What are some of the current barriers to involving patients more in their care? Jennifer points to a “lack of adequate time during the doctor’s visit (on both sides), language barriers, technology barriers, generation gaps, and cultural gaps.”  The solution?  “All solved by building good relationships,” says Jennifer.

Norah also calls attention to the technology barriers. “For older patients simple things like communication (hearing), or uninformed changes are extremely disempowering; as is over reliance on technology for a generation who may not have ‘tech’ understanding or access.”  Tim Delaney (@FrancosBruvva), Head of Pharmacy at a leading hospital in Ireland highlights the fact that “in acute hospitals we treat huge numbers of elderly people whose engagement with social media and new technology is lower. We need to design technology that meets their usability needs AND use whatever suits them best be it old tech or new.” Soo Hun agrees that “the tech savvy few have quicker and better access to health information and therefore can have choice and autonomy. To reverse that we need to make technology ubiquitous and make health information and choice easily accessible.”

Whilst Vanessa believes it should be “governmental policy to have digital resources in place, for example, disease specific websites / apps supported by health authorities,” Kayoko believes it can start with “tech-savvy advocates (like me) who could help patients learn to use simple digital tools.”

Matthew Loxton sees a core barrier to empowerment to be “the large knowledge/power gradients between patients and health care providers. Without access to their data, trustworthy sources of medical knowledge, and the power to execute their choices in achieving health goals, empowerment is an empty phrase.”  Triona Murphy echoes this systemic challenge by clarifying that “the whole system needs to understand the patient’s right to be equal partners in their care. IF that is what the patient wants.”

Sometimes the fear of being labelled a difficult patient can be a barrier to empowerment. “Some patients feel uncomfortable challenging the judgement or actions of their caregivers for the fear of being labelled as ‘difficult’, of offending staff and/or because of concerns of compromising their healthcare and safety,” says Tim Delaney.

Final Thoughts

Not everyone wants to be empowered in making decisions about their care, and not every doctor wants to take the time. Some doctors use medical terminology which is incomprehensible to patients, while some patients have low health literacy skills or come from cultural backgrounds that lack a tradition of individuals making autonomous decisions.  That said, Carol McCullough points out that while “not everyone may want to be empowered, for the health service to be sustainable, more people are going to have to take on more responsibility.”

Medical Doctor and Chair of Technical Advisory Board, Pavilion Health, Dr Mary Ethna Black (@DrMaryBlack) points to the inevitability of the shift towards patient empowerment. “Empowerment is an inevitable shift that is happening anyway, “she says. “We cannot turn back the tide or turn off the internet.”

Kayoko Ky Corbet agrees that we “must understand that patients making informed decisions is the ultimate way to reduce waste, pain and regrets in healthcare. It’s also morally the right thing to do!”  Patient Critical Co-op also believes in the moral imperative that “empowerment essentially means a group or society recognizing your right. Patient empowerment exists as an action patients can take to improve themselves, but the key to achieving that improvement is having a group, organization, or state enshrine and recognize those rights.” In fact, the Alma Ata Declaration defined civic involvement in healthcare as both a right and a duty: “The people have the right and duty to participate individually and collectively in the planning and implementation of their healthcare.” The Declaration highlights the collective dimension of empowerment and the importance of action towards change. By working together to think internationally and act nationally we can draw on each other’s experiences so that as individuals and as a collective we can work towards better outcomes for all patients.  To quote Terri Coutee, “When we gather our collective empowered voices, we feel a strong responsibility to give voice to others.”


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Liam Farrell in facilitating the Twitter discussion on which this article is based.

Patient Advocacy: Understanding Your Illness

The news that you, or a loved one, has a serious illness can be a terrible blow.  You may be faced with an array of emotions ranging from shock to fear to anxiety. You will likely have many questions and concerns about what the coming days and months will bring, and the impact living with this illness will have on your life and the lives of your family. Although you may be reeling from the news, it’s important that you learn as much as you can about your diagnosis, its symptoms, how it may progress and what treatment options are available. In this article, you will learn which questions you should ask your healthcare team and where to find reliable and trustworthy information to become better informed about your health condition.

1. Obtaining Information From Your Doctors And Healthcare Team

Having answers to your questions can help you understand your illness better and feel more in control about your treatment decisions.  How much information you want is up to you. Some patients feel overwhelmed by too much information at this stage.  Others say they didn’t receive enough information.  While information upon first diagnosis is vitally important, you may be in shock and in a heightened emotional state which makes it difficult to fully comprehend all the information you are given. If possible, bring a trusted friend or family member to appointments with you to take notes. If this is not possible, ask your doctor if you can record the consultation so you can focus on listening, and go back and review what was said later.

Medical care is a conversation and to have influence in that conversation you have to speak up. Never be embarrassed to tell your healthcare team if you don’t understand something they’ve said. Sometimes doctors use medical jargon without realizing they are not explaining things in terms we understand. Repeat what the doctor has told you to be sure you understand and ask for clarification if needed.

Some questions to ask your doctor about your diagnosis:

  • What are the symptoms of this illness?
  • What should you do if you notice new symptoms or if existing symptoms worsen?
  • Do you need any further diagnostic tests?
  • What are your treatment options?
  • What are the side-effects of the recommended treatment?
  • What are the benefits vs the risks?
  • What happens if you do nothing?
  • Are there other treatment options available?

Finally, ask your healthcare team if they can recommend further reading, support groups and other resources to help you learn more about your illness.

2. Finding Reliable Information Online

As you move along the patient journey and better understand your illness, you may want higher levels of information. However, you may find the information healthcare professionals provide has not keep pace with your increased needs. This is the point where many patients turn online to seek more information. While the Internet can be a useful source of health information, it’s important to know how to critically evaluate the information you find online. Always discuss what you find with your healthcare team and ask them to put the information into context for your particular situation.

Here are some questions to help you determine the trustworthiness of online sources of information.

  • Who has produced the information?
  • Does the organization have commercial interests or another reason they are promoting this information?
  • Is the name of the organization and their aims in setting up the website clearly shown?
  • Does the site provide contact details if you have any questions?
  • Is the information on the website up to date?
  • Does it cite the source of the information that is being presented?
  • Does the site link with other reputable sites that give similar information?

3. Evaluating Medical News Reports

Whether it’s published in hard copy or online, medical news reports can mislead people into thinking a certain drug or treatment is the next breakthrough in a disease.  As patient advocates we must learn to read beyond the headlines to filter out the good, the bad, and the questionable.

The following questions will help you evaluate the reliability of medical news reporting.

  • Does the article support its claims with scientific research?
  • What is the original source of the article?
  • Who paid for and conducted the study?
  • How many people did the research study include?
  • Did the study include a control group?
  • What are the study’s limitations?
  • If it’s a clinical trial that is being reported on, what stage is the trial at?

Always try to read an original study (if cited) to critically evaluate the information presented. Understanding research literature is an important skill for patient advocates. For tips on how to read a research paper click on this link.

4. Learning From Peers

From helping us to uncover a diagnosis and finding the right doctors and treatments, to learning about everyday coping tips, turning to our peers can make all the difference in how we live with our illnesses.  Much of this peer-to-peer learning takes place through social media discussions on patient blogs and in Facebook groups and Twitter chats. On Facebook you can connect with other patient advocates and join Facebook groups related to your disease or health condition. On Twitter you have a greater mix of patients, physicians, healthcare professionals and medical researchers coming together to discuss healthcare matters. It is becoming increasingly popular for attendees at key medical conferences, such as ASCO, to “live-tweet” sessions. You can follow along on Twitter using the conference hashtag which you should find published on the conference website. Another way to learn on Twitter is to join a Twitter chat related to your health condition. Twitter chats can be one-off events, but more usually are recurring weekly chats to regularly connect people. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project.

Final Thoughts

Understanding your illness is the first step on the path to advocating for yourself and others.

Being an advocate involves asking lots of questions, conducting your own research, and making your preferences known to your healthcare team. By doing this, you will be better informed and in a stronger position to get the treatment that is right for you. If this feels overwhelming to you right now, go at your own pace, and reach out to others who have walked this path before you. There is an army of patients who are standing by, ready to share their healthcare wisdom and practical coping tips with you. Seeking their advice will help lessen the fear and isolation you may be feeling, give you a sense of shared experience and connection, and help you feel more in charge of your healthcare decisions.

Fact Checking 101: Health Literacy in Real Time

There’s a medical miracle every day, if you believe headlines on popular media sites. If you just read those headlines, cancer is cured daily, as are hepatitis C, and a host of neurological conditions. Dive into the stories, though, and you’ll all too often find the “in mice” red flag, meaning that scientific experiments have indicated that mice are having terrific outcomes from whatever substance is being touted. Humans? Not so much.

Information flows at the speed of life – thank you, Internet – but information does not always equal factual truth. Which is where fact checking comes in, and what I’ll be offering tips on here. As a journalist, I’ve hunted down confirmations on stories for years – here’s a quick primer on doing it for your own health/science literacy building.

  • Snopes.com: this site is the granddaddy of online myth busting. They have a dedicated channel for health news, which is definitely a good first stop to fact check a headline touting a “cure” for an illness or condition.
  • Sense About Science USA: the US arm of the UK-based Sense About Science and AllTrials, this site takes a deep dive into advocacy and literacy building for both the public, and professionals, around medical science. They’re in the process of creating an AllAccess Patient Guide on clinical trial participation, and transparency in reporting on all trials, which will be published in the fall of this year (2017).
  • Health News Review: the editors and reviewers behind this site are professional healthcare journalists dedicated to reading and scoring the reporting on health science in major media. I think of them as Politifact For Healthcare – they don’t issue “pants on fire” or “Pinocchio” warnings, but their 5-star review system is rigorous, and great reading.
  • FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org: these sites assess news stories and sources in many categories, from politics to science to health policy. They’re produced by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and are great resources for fact checking in all news categories, not just science.
  • Retraction Watch: this is in the Super Science Nerd Journalist zone, covering the retraction of scientific papers around the world. There’s an old news adage about corrections being buried deep beneath the front page – that rule goes double in science publishing. A paper is published, and makes big headlines. If it’s retracted weeks/months/years later, there’s seldom a screaming headline announcing the retraction, leaving the untruth out there to be misunderstood and often misused.

Building your own health and science literacy is a process. Reading the latest medical science news is a starting point, but you have to add fact checking as a critical part of your learning curve. Then use the “see one, do one, teach one” method to help your friends and family build their health literacy, teaching them how to find and fact check the science news that matters – that’s how we all build healthy, science-literate communities.

How to Weigh Up the Benefits and Risks of Treatment…and Why It’s Important That You Do

MEO Feb.Do clinicians have accurate expectations of the benefits and harms of treatments and screening tests?

new study in JAMA Internal Medicine concludes not. In a systematic review of 48 studies (13 011 clinicians), the researchers found that clinicians rarely had accurate expectations of benefits or harms, more often underestimating harms and overestimated benefits. Among the findings, obstetricians and neurologists underestimated the risk of birth defects from anti-epileptic drugs and GPs overestimated the benefit of prostate cancer screening. Transplant surgeons were biased towards an inaccurately low estimate of graft failure and all types of doctors were unaware of the risk of radiation exposure from imaging.

What do these findings mean for patients? Inaccurate clinician expectations of the benefits and harms of interventions can profoundly influence decision making and the standard of care patients receive. Patient activist, blogger, and author of the upcoming book “Heart Sisters: A Survivor’s Take on Women and Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017), Carolyn Thomas, believes this to be “a consistently systemic issue for patients, too: most believe medical interventions will help more/harm less than they actually do”. It’s a wake-up call for patients who have a critical role to play in understanding and weighing up benefits and risks for ourselves, in order to get better treatment. And it’s a further reminder of the importance of shared decision making to reach a healthcare choice together, as opposed to clinicians making decisions on behalf of patients.

However, understanding the risks associated with a treatment is not necessarily straight-forward. The challenge for busy clinicians is that there isn’t always the time to read and digest the latest research to inform their practice. Medical commentator, physician, and cancer survivor, Elaine Schattner, believes that because medical knowledge changes so rapidly it’s hard for clinicians to keep pace. “This may be especially true in oncology,” she points out, “as patients become expert in their own conditions and needs, they may prefer to look up information on their own, and share their findings with their physicians.”

A lengthy article published this month in ProPublica, examines what it calls “an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatment” requested by patients and delivered by doctors, even after current research contradicts its practice. “It is distressingly ordinary for patients to get treatments that research has shown are ineffective or even dangerous”, writes David Epstein. “Some procedures are implemented based on studies that did not prove whether they really worked in the first place. Others were initially supported by evidence but then were contradicted by better evidence, and yet these procedures have remained the standards of care for years, or decades.” Epstein points to a 2013 study which examined all 363 articles published in The New England Journal of Medicine over a decade — 2001 through 2010 — that tested a current clinical practice. Their results, published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found 146 studies that proved or strongly suggested that a current standard practice either had no benefit at all or was inferior to the practice it replaced. Of course, this is not to say that myriad treatments don’t indeed improve and save lives, but it’s important to ask questions and do your own research before making a decision on which treatment is the best for you.

Start by asking your doctor to explain all the treatment options open to you, including what would happen if you do nothing. Recognise that all treatments are inevitably associated with some risk of possible harm. Ask your doctor to quantify that risk beyond a purely descriptive term, such as “low risk” (what your doctor considers a small and acceptable risk may be unacceptable to you). Next, do your own research. In order to make an informed decision, you will need to gather reliable information on which to base your choice. Fully exploring the risks and benefits of treatment involves doing your own evidence-based research (using evidence from medical studies that have looked at what happens to many thousands of people with your condition). In a previous article, I shared with you some helpful guidelines for assessing medical information. Most media reports about the benefits of treatments present risk results as relative risk reductions rather than absolute risk reductions, so you will need to understand the difference. Absolute risk of a disease is your risk of developing the disease over a time period. We all have absolute risks of developing various diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc. Relative risk is used to compare the risk in two different groups of people. For example, research has shown that smokers have a higher risk of developing heart disease compared to non-smokers. Ask your doctor to differentiate between absolute and relative risk. Check out the NNT website which provides non-biased summaries of evidence-based medicine. “NNT” stands for a statistical concept called the “Number-Needed-to-Treat” – as in “How many patients need to be treated with a drug or procedure for one patient to get the hoped-for benefit?” The core value of the NNT is its straightforward communication of the science that can help us understand the likelihood that a patient will be helped, harmed, or unaffected by a treatment. It provides a measurement of the impact of a medicine or therapy by estimating the number of patients that need to be treated in order to have an impact on one person. Because we know that not everyone is helped by a medicine or intervention — some benefit, some are harmed, and some are unaffected, the NNT tells us how many of each.

You may also want to hear about what other people with your condition have chosen to do and what their experience has been. But remember that just because something has/hasn’t worked for someone else, it doesn’t mean it will/won’t work for you. Orthopedic surgeon, Dr Nicholas DiNubile, recommends patients ask their doctors, “If this were you, or one of your immediate family members, what would you do and/or recommend?” While this may be useful, you must ultimately decide what benefits and risks are important to you. Can you tolerate the side-effects? Are you happy with the way the treatment is administered? Would you find it stressful to live with the risk of any serious side effects, even if the risk is small? What matters is whether you think that the benefits outweigh the risk of any side effects. Everyone is different. The treatment recommended for you may not be the best treatment for your particular lifestyle. Being an advocate for your own health care involves asking lots of questions, doing your own research, and making your preferences known to your doctor. By doing this, you will be better informed and in a stronger position to get the treatment that is right for you.


Related Reading
Clinicians’ Expectations of Treatments, Screening, and Test Benefit and Harm
The three questions that every patient should ask their doctor
Strategies to help patients understand risks

Mobile Doctor’s Appointments? Do They Work?

Dr. On Demand Dashboard

Dr. On Demand Dashboard

Hate the doctor’s office and don’t want to go to Urgent Care or the E.R.? There’s an app for that. Doctor On Demand is a mobile application that allows you to have a video appointment with a doctor from your own home. On their website they claim, “At Doctor On Demand we provide fast, easy and cost-effective access to some of the best doctors, psychologists, and other healthcare providers in the country. Our patients can have Video Visits with these providers on their smartphone or computers at any time of day.” Recently a friend of mine used this app for the first time because of a strange lump in her armpit, so I decided to sit in to see what it was all about and if it can actually replace an in-person visit.

Before

First thing you do is download the app, create an account, and fill out your health and insurance information. Then, you are given the option to choose a specific doctor or specific time. If you chose the specific time route, you are assigned a doctor. My friend chose a specific time and told me that it was a very easy, user-friendly process. To prepare for the appointment, you fill out all your symptoms and take pictures of your problem (if applicable) to have on hand. I asked my friend why they chose Doctor On Demand over a traditional doctor, Urgent Care, or E.R., and she said this way she won’t have to waste time stuck in a doctor’s office, could be seen quicker, and the appointment times worked better with her work schedule. However, she was hesitant because the doctor would not be able to feel or see the issue in person, which may affect the diagnosis.

During

Once your call begins, the doctor begins by reviewing your chart before coming on camera. Next, the doctor comes on camera and asks to explain the problem and the symptoms she was having. The appointment is set up like a FaceTime call. The doctor assigned to my friend was very friendly and attentive. This when those photos you took beforehand are useful because then she asked my friend to upload the photos for her to look at.

After

After the issue was thoroughly explained, the doctor was unable to diagnose what was going on without further testing. She did explain the several possibilities of what could be occurring and what tests may be needed. However, in the end the doctor did recommend that my friend go see a doctor in-person to get an accurate diagnosis.

Overall

In conclusion, my friend was reassured that it didn’t require immediate attention and that she shouldn’t worry. She also felt better and more relax about the few days it would be before she could be seen by a doctor. She and I would both recommend using Dr. On Demand, especially for the simpler alignments, such as colds, because the doctors are able to write prescriptions to your local pharmacy saving you the time wasted in a waiting room. My friend had this to say about her overall experience:

“This was a quick solution to put my mind at ease that something more serious was not going on before I was able to schedule an in-person doctor’s appointment”

15 Tips To Get the Most From Your Doctor’s Visit

beautyHave you ever had the experience of leaving the doctor’s office wishing you had remembered to ask a certain question? Or have you left it until the very end to tell your doctor about the real reason for your visit? These so-called “doorknob” questions – bringing up an important concern just as you are leaving the office – can mean your doctor won’t have time to adequately address your concerns. When the average time it takes for a doctor’s visit is fifteen minutes, it’s easy to feel rushed and forget what you wanted to say, or to leave an appointment unsure of the information you have heard. But with a little advance preparation you can learn how to make the most of those fifteen minutes. Follow these fifteen tips to become a more empowered and engaged partner in your own health – and the health of those you care for.

1. When you call to make your appointment, explain clearly why you need to see the doctor. Let the receptionist know how much time you will need to schedule for the visit. If you have any special needs, such as wheelchair access or interpretive needs, let the office know in advance.

2. Be sure to that where you make your appointment accepts your insurance. You can call or go online to your insurance website to see a directory of in-network providers.

3. If this is your first visit to a new physician, gather together any past medical records and family medical history to take along with you.  If you’re seeing other doctors and have information they’ve provided, bring this along too.

4. Write down a list of your symptoms before the visit. It’s a good idea to keep a diary so you can chart your symptoms over time. Include details of the type of symptoms you are experiencing, when these symptoms began, and what makes them better or worse.

Use this common medical mnemonic to guide you.

(O)-P-Q-R-S-T

  • Pain (“Where does it hurt?”)
  • Quality (“What does it feel like?”)
  • Radiation (“Does it move anywhere?”)
  • Scale (“How bad is it? How much does it affect you?”)
  • Timing (“When did it start? How long does it last? Does it come and go? Is it gradual or sudden in onset? What makes it better or worse?”)
  • Other (“Any other symptoms?”)

5. Set the agenda at the start of your visit. Did you know that a patient has an average of 23 seconds to state their concerns before a physician interrupts? According to an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, only 28% of doctors know their patient’s full spectrum of concerns before they begin to focus on one particular concern, and once the conversation is focused, the likelihood of returning to other concerns is only 8%. Doctors have a limited amount of time for office visits. In order to use their time wisely they usually set the agenda and control the visit as much as possible. To avoid this happening to you, prepare in advance the top two or three concerns you want to raise with your doctor. Are you looking for a diagnosis? Do you need a new treatment plan or a modification of an existing plan? Are you looking for help with feelings of fatigue or depression? Don’t forget to describe your emotional state and any personal circumstances which may influence your physical health. Write down your main concerns so you are ready to verbalize them clearly at the beginning of  your visit.

6. If you use a self-tracking device, like a Fitbit, download your data and summarize the findings beforehand.

7. Bring a list of all medications you are currently taking, including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, herbs, or supplements. If you have a smart phone or tablet, it’s useful to take pictures of your medication and supplement labels to show the doctor.

8. During your visit, tell your doctor you would like to take notes. If you would prefer to record your notes via your smartphone, ask your doctor if it is ok to do so.

9. Medical care is a conversation. So to have influence in that conversation you have to speak up. If you don’t want the treatment your doctor recommends (or you’re not sure), it’s reasonable to ask if there are other treatment options available. Never be embarrassed to tell your doctor if you don’t understand something she has said. Sometimes doctors use medical jargon without realizing they are not explaining things in terms we understand. Repeat what the doctor has told you to be sure you understand and ask for clarification if needed

10. If you find it difficult to speak up for yourself, or you are facing a potentially challenging diagnosis, bring a friend or family member along for support. This person can also take notes and help you remember what was discussed later.

11. Always be honest with your doctor. You may not like to admit how much you drink, or smoke, or if you have stopped taking your medication because of expense or side effects, but your doctor needs to know about these and other lifestyle matters to ensure you are receiving optimum care.

12. Ask you doctor to explain any test results to you, Request a copy of the results for your own files.

13. Before you leave, be sure you understand what needs to happen next. Do you need any further diagnostic tests? When will you get the results? If you have just received a diagnosis, what are your treatment options? If you have questions or concerns later how should you contact your doctor? You can also ask if your doctor recommends any specific reading materials or websites about your condition.

14. If you have been given a prescription for a new medication, do you understand how and when the medication should be taken? Are there any side-effects, for example drowsiness, you should watch for? How will you know if the medication is working? What happens if you miss a dose?

15. After your visit, review and file your notes along with any test results or other documentation and billing you received. Schedule any follow up tests or appointments right away.

Your relationship with your doctor is one of the most important you have. Advance preparation will help you use your own time and your doctor’s time more efficiently and effectively. When people take an active role in their care, research shows they are more satisfied and do better in how well treatments work. Preparing for your doctor’s visit is an important step toward becoming a partner in your own health care and a better advocate for your health and well-being.

Finding The Right Oncologist For You

finding-the-right-oncologist-for-youWhen you put your life in someone else’s hands, you need to feel completely comfortable and confident with that person – especially when that person is your oncologist. How do you go about finding the right one for you?

One of the best ways to find an oncologist is through referrals from people you trust, such as your primary care physician, family, friends, local hospitals or your insurance company. Many insurance plans allow their members to search doctors by name or specialty. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides a free, searchable database of ASCO member oncologists. These doctors opt to make their information available to the public.

Other medical associations offering searchable databases:

Once you have collected and written down a few possible oncologists’ names, remember to ask yourself these three questions:

What are their credentials?

Board certification is one of the most important factors you should consider when choosing an oncologist. It assures you that the doctor has the necessary training, skills, and experience to provide healthcare in oncology. Additionally, choose a doctor that treats your specific type of cancer and has related experience with that disease. The more experience the doctor has with a certain cancer, the better your outcome will likely be. Your doctor’s hospital is your hospital, so don’t forget to research the quality of care offered at that location as well.

What blend of traits are important to you?

Languages spoken, gender, and education may be important to you. You may also have strong feelings about personality and bedside manner. Some people want their doctors to have a business-like manner, while others value a doctor who can help with their emotional health as well as their medical needs. Whatever your preferences, the most important thing is finding an oncologist with whom you are comfortable.

What is their communication style?

Choose a doctor that values and respects your questions and answers you in a way that you can understand. Clarity and candor are highly important characteristics for a doctor. Make sure that your doctor values both shared decision-making and the best available clinical evidence, as well as your personal values and preferences throughout your treatment.

Once you have found a doctor that meets all the above criteria, ask him or her for an introductory phone call before scheduling an appointment. You should interview your potential oncologist the same way you would interview a lawyer or an accountant. Don’t be afraid to set-up introductory calls or appointments with a few oncologists for comparison. You may also want to consider the size of your doctor’s staff and accessibility to clinical trials.

Alongside considering size of practice, clinical trials or proximity to home, make certain that your new oncologist is someone you can work closely with and trust. Your new doctor will become the most valuable member of your cancer team, so it is imperative that you choose a doctor with whom you are comfortable.


Resources:

http://www.cancer.net

https://www.healthgrades.com/explore/8-tips-for-choosing-an-oncologist

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/findingandpayingfortreatment/choosingyourtreatmentteam/choosing-a-doctor-and-a-hospital

Shared Decision Making: Putting the Patient At The Center of Medical Care

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” – Benjamin Franklin

As gravity shifts away from health care providers as the sole keeper of medical information, the importance of sharing decisions, as opposed to clinicians making decisions on behalf of patients, has been increasingly recognized. Shared decision- making (SDM) is the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together. Examples include decisions about surgery, medications, self-management, and screening and diagnostic tests. While the process commonly involves a clinician and patient, other members of the health care team or friends and family members may also be invited to participate. The clinician provides current, evidence-based information about treatment options, describing their risks and benefits; and the patient expresses his or her preferences and values. It is thus a communication approach that seeks to balance clinician expertise with patient preference.

Dr Mohsin Choudry describes shared decision-making as “a way of transforming the conversation between doctors and their patients so that the thoughts, concerns and especially the preferences of individuals are placed more equally alongside the clinician’s expertise, experience and skills.” Before physicians can really know what the proper treatment is for a patient, they must understand the particular needs of their patients. This approach recognises that clinicians and patients bring different but equally important forms of expertise to the decision-making process. The clinician’s expertise is based on knowledge of the disease, likely prognosis, tests and treatment; patients are experts on how a disease impacts their daily life, and their values and preferences. For some medical decisions, there is one clearly superior treatment path (for example, acute appendicitis necessitates surgery); but for many decisions there is more than one option in which attendant risks and benefits need to be assessed. In these cases the patient’s own priorities are important in reaching a treatment decision. Patients may hold a view that one treatment option fits their lifestyle better than another. This view may be different from the clinician’s.  Shared decision-making recognises a patient’s right to make these decisions, ensuring they are fully informed about the options they face. In its definition of shared decision-making, the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation ,  a non-profit that promotes evidence-based shared decision-making, describes the model as “honoring both the provider’s expert knowledge and the patient’s right to be fully informed of all care options and the potential harms and benefits. This process provides patients with the support they need to make the best individualized care decisions, while allowing providers to feel confident in the care they prescribe.”

By explicitly recognising a patient’s right to make decisions about their care, SDM can help ensure that care is truly patient-centered. In Making Shared Decision-Making A Reality: No Decision About Me Without Me, the authors recommend that shared decision-making in the context of a clinical consultation should:

  • support patients to articulate their understanding of their condition and of what they hope treatment (or self-management support) will achieve;
  • inform patients about their condition, about the treatment or support options available, and about the benefits and risks of each;
  • ensure that patients and clinicians arrive at a decision based on mutual understanding of this information;
  • record and implement the decision reached.Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 4.43.27 AM

The most important attribute of patient-centered care is the active engagement of patients in decisions about their care.
“No decision about me, without me” can only be realised by involving patients fully in their own care, with decisions made in partnership with clinicians, rather than by clinicians alone. This has been endorsed by the Salzburg Statement on Shared Decision Making, authored by 58 representatives from 18 countries, which states that clinicians have an ethical imperative to share important decisions with patients. Clinical encounters should always include a two-way flow of information, allowing patients to ask questions, explain their circumstances and express their preferences. Clinicians must provide high quality information, tailored to the patient’s needs and they should allow patients sufficient time to consider their options. Similarly, in Shared Decision Making: A Model for Clinical Practice, the authors argue that achieving shared decision-making depends on building a good relationship in the clinical encounter so that patients, carers and clinicians work together, in equal partnership, to make decisions and agree a care plan. According to the Mayo Clinic Shared Decision Making National Resource Center, this model involves “developing a partnership based on empathy, exchanging information about the available options, deliberating while considering the potential consequences of each one, and making a decision by consensus.” Good communication can help to build rapport, respect and trust between patients and health professionals and it is especially important when decisions are being made about treatment.

Decision Aids

One of the most important requirements for decision-making is information. There are a number of tools available to support the process such as information sheets, DVDs, interactive websites, cates plots or options grids. Decision aids that are based on research evidence are designed to show information about different options and help patients reach an informed choice. The Mayo Clinic has been developing its own decision aids since 2005 and distributing them free of charge to other health care providers. For instance, Mayo’s Diabetes Medication Choice Decision Aid helps patients choose among the six medications commonly used to treat type-2 diabetes. Patients choose the issues that are most important to them, for example, blood sugar control or method of administration —and then work with their physicians to make comparisons among the drugs, based on the chosen criterion.

Discussing their options and preferences with health professionals enables patients to understand their choices better and feel they have made a decision which is right for them. Research studies have found that people who take part in decisions have better health outcomes (such as controlled high blood pressure) and are more likely to stick to a treatment plan, than those who do not.  A 2012 Cochrane review of 86 randomized trials found that patients who use decision aids improve their knowledge of their treatment options, have more accurate expectations of the potential benefits and risks, reach choices that accord with their values, and more actively participate in decision making. Instead of elective surgery, patients using decision aids opt for conservative options more often than those not using decision aids.

Barriers to Shared Decision-Making

Barriers to shared decision-making include poor communication, for example doctors using medical terminology which is incomprehensible to patients; lack of information and low health literacy levels. It is worth noting that not everyone wants to be involved in shared decision making with their doctors; and not every doctor wants to take the time. Some patients come from cultural backgrounds that lack a tradition of individuals making autonomous decisions. Some health professionals may think they are engaged in shared decision-making even when they are not.

Shared Decision-Making – An Ethical Imperative

With this proviso in mind, it is nevertheless clear that the tide is turning toward more active patient participation in decisions about health care. Research has shown that when patients know they have options for the best treatment, screening test, or diagnostic procedure, most of them will want to participate with their clinicians in making the choice. A systematic review of patient preferences for shared decision making indicates 71% of patients in studies after 2000 preferred sharing decision roles, compared to 50% of studies before 2000.  The most important reason for practising shared decision-making is that it is the right thing to do. The Salzburg Statement goes so far as to say it is an ethical imperative and failure to facilitate shared decision-making in the clinical encounter should be taken as evidence of poor quality care. Evidence for the benefits of shared decision-making is mounting. Providing patients with current, evidence-based information, relevant decision aids and giving them time to explore their options and work through their concerns, will help patients choose a treatment route which best suits their needs and preferences, and ultimately lead to better health outcomes for all.

How to Develop a Personal “Medical Résumé”

When people are applying for jobs, they develop a résumé. This document has all the important details regarding their work history, education, etc. Patients need a résumé too! However, patient résumés are different. Employment résumés are created to get great jobs; medical résumés are created to acquire great healthcare experiences.

In early 2007, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. My mother also had many other medical issues, including diabetes, hypertension, colon cancer and atrial fibrillation. My mother was on many medications and saw many different doctors from various health systems. It was challenging managing my mother’s care, until I developed two pieces of paper that changed everything! I created the “medical résumé.”

According to the Joint Commission, the organization that accredits healthcare organizations, the biggest cause of medical errors is botched handoffs. A handoff is a transition of care, such as going from a hospital to a rehab center. Patients could play a vital role in ensuring safe handoffs via the medical résumé. My mother experienced many handoffs, and I was able to avert many errors through the medical résumé. After my mother was handed off, I would always review my mother’s pertinent medical history and provide a copy of her medical résumé. I lost track of how many times I heard this statement, “This is a life-saving tool. I wish all patients had a medical résumé!” Healthcare organizations have volumes of information on each patient. The medical résumé helps them quickly see all the most important details.

Develop your medical résumé in the form of an electronic file. This can be accomplished easily via a word processing system. The information can be simply updated at any time. Always keep in mind the golden rule of electronic files, have a backup copy!

Below are some suggested items to include in your medical résumé. A medical résumé looks exactly like an employment résumé! I developed the look of my medical résumé based on the appearance of my business résumé. Have major headings with bullet points; just like this article! You want to make it very easy for professionals to quickly and accurately review your information. It may seem like a challenge to include all this information on just two pages. However, you’ll be very surprised as to how much information you can pack into two pages!

Contact Information

At the top of your medical résumé, include the following information:

  • Full name, address, city/state/zip, landline/cell phone numbers and email address
  • Personal data including date of birth, social security number and any patient identification numbers from your medical centers

Insurance Information

Include company names, phone numbers and account numbers.

Allergies

Since allergies could be life threatening, it is important that they be listed early on in your medical résumé. I am allergic to sulfa drugs and scan dyes. I used to just mention these two items; however I found healthcare professionals wanted details. They would often ask what kind of reaction I had – a slight rash or a serious reaction that resulted in a hospitalization? I now include brief but significant details about my reactions and you should too.

Medications 

List all the medications you are taking. Do not assume that all healthcare professionals are familiar with your medications and their uses. In addition to pills, also include inhalers, injectable therapies, drops, and ointments. For each medication, include the following:

  • Medication name (be specific, don’t simply say “high blood pressure pill”)
  • Purpose of medication (for example, “used to treat Type II Diabetes”)
  • Dosage
  • Frequency (e.g., number of times taken per day)
  • Pharmacy contact information

Illnesses and Surgeries

This is a place to list significant illnesses and surgeries. You do not need to include every cold you had in your life! For each major illness or surgery, include the following:

  • Type of issue (e.g., knee replacement surgery, prostate cancer)
  • Date of issue (include month and year)
  • Treatments (e.g., surgery, radiation, specific chemo drugs, etc.)
  • Current status (mention if you are in active treatment or when treatment was completed)

Physicians

For each of your current physicians, list the following:

  • Full name (do not just say “Dr. Smith”)
  • Area of medicine (e.g., internist, oncologist, etc.)
  • Location / hospital affiliation
  • Phone number

Emergency Contacts

Include the person’s name, relationship and mobile phone number.

In addition to the personal medical résumé consider developing a family medical history document. Our family developed this type of document, which proved very useful when seeing a new healthcare professional. Also, if appropriate, have an electronic copy of Power of Attorney documents. My brother and & I were my mother’s Power of Attorney. We had an electronic file of this document and could easily print when it was requested.

Medical résumés get the job done!

How to Prepare for a Second Opinion Doctor Appointment

Expert physicians and cancer patients agree that getting a second opinion is crucial, even if you are very pleased with your primary medical team. It is your health and your life; take care of yourself!

A second opinion will help you learn more about your illness and treatment options. What you learn also will help you communicate intelligently with your medical team to get the best, most personalized care.

But doctor appointments can be scary, overwhelming and intimidating. There is the possibility of bad news and the apprehension of receiving confusing an difficult-to-understand information. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your second opinion appointment.

Prepare in advance

Plan to take a trusted friend or family member with you

This is critical. Memory retention is only 10% and less when you are stressed. You will not remember everything that is said during the appointment. You need to have someone there with you to be ‘another set of eyes and ears’. Then you can discuss key points with this other person to make sure you both heard the same information, go over options, and, if appropriate, ask for their input and opinion,

Record the conversation

Ask the doctor if you can record the conversation. Pull out your smartphone and record it! Then you can play it back at your leisure and discuss it with your family and the person who accompanied you to the appointment. You can then go over key issues, play back critical discussions and not miss anything!

By the way, many expert physicians have endorsed the idea of recording the discussion at a doctor appointment so don’t be afraid to ask!

Think of questions to ask and write them down ahead of time

No one thinks and speaks at the same time and does it effectively. And stress adds to the mix. So plan ahead and write your questions down to prepare yourself for the appointment. For example:

  • Confirmation of diagnosis
  • What are the next steps?
  • Am I eligible for a clinical trial?
  • What are my treatment options and does the second opinion doctor agree with the original treatment options?
  • What are the side effects of the treatment options?

If a clinical trial is advisable, you can ask these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the study?
  • Who is sponsoring the study, and who has reviewed and approved it?
  • What kinds of tests, medicines, surgery, or devices are involved? Are any procedures painful?
  • What are the possible risks, side effects, and benefits of taking part in the study?
  • How might this trial affect my daily life? Will I have to be in the hospital?
  • How long will the trial last?
  • Who will pay for the tests and treatments I receive?
  • Will I be reimbursed for other expenses (for example, travel and child care)?
  • Who will be in charge of my care?
  • What will happen after the trial?

Bottom line: You do not need to become a medical expert in your disease. By following the guidelines above, you can become more knowledgeable to make informed decisions about your path to improved health and quality of life.

 

 

Does Patient Empowerment Lead to Better Cancer Treatment Outcomes?

According to a study presented at the World Congress of Psycho-Oncology (WCPO) in late July, 72.3% of patients diagnosed with cancer defer their treatment decisions to their doctor. While this number is not surprising, it is cause for concern.

With a diagnosis of cancer comes a barrage of possible options for treatment. Often, choosing between these options can be overwhelming and intimidating, especially as there is typically not a clear answer and many uncertainties in terms of potential outcome.

How can we help patients navigate these tough decisions, such as whether or not to get a second opinion or participate in a clinical trial? How can we help patients gain the confidence they need and help them feel empowered and in control as they discuss treatment options with their healthcare team?

 Helping patients self-advocate

A survey done last year by Patient Power of 1295 chronic cancer patients showed that 73% of those
surveyed said the health information they found online helped them feel more confident and more in control of their health (see infographic at the end of this post). Learning about your illness from experts and from other patients can be a rewarding and empowering experience.

Organizations such as the Cancer Support Community (CSC) and others, including us at the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), offer programs to help patients stand up and advocate for themselves and become informed so that they, in partnership with their heath care team, can make the right decisions for them.

Programs and resources designed to empower patients

The study presented at WCPO found that educational workshops, such as the CSC’s Frankly Speaking About Cancer program, that aim to educate and empower those affected by cancer can have dramatic outcomes in terms of patient confidence in making treatment decisions. In fact, the study found that as a result of attending a Frankly Speaking About Cancer workshop, 85.5% of respondents reported having increased confidence in discussing treatment options and making treatment- related decisions with their health care team. (Harvey, et al 2015)

 

Live audience at a recent town meeting for patients

Live audience at a recent town meeting for patients

PEN’s Town Halls and Patient Café programs give patients and carers tools and resources to discuss treatment options, including clinical trial participation, with their doctor and their family and make informed and empowered decisions throughout their illness.

Participant surveys from these meetings are overwhelmingly positive. Over 80% typically rate the event as good to excellent, and many write in emails like the following:

 

 

“Thank-you for all you do and have done to help those of us with CLL better understand this journey we are traveling.   The information you give is such a great help when I talk with my doctors and just for peace of mind in better understanding what I am facing.  Mary”

Answering your questions about clinical trials

In addition to helping facilitate conversations about treatment decisions, PEN offers a comfortable and convenient place to find user-friendly information about clinical trials. One of our goals is to help you understand the process by introducing you to people just like you who have participated in, or are considering participating in, clinical trials. We also offer opportunities to hear from doctors, nurses, caregivers, caseworkers and others about their perspective on what it means to participate in a clinical trial.

Patients helping patients

"Powerful Patients" at a recent town meeting

“Powerful Patients” at a recent town meeting

There are many resources available to help patients navigate their journey and we encourage you to take full advantage of them. If you can’t find what you need, don’t hesitate to reach out to let us know how we can better help you. And, most importantly, please remember, you are not alone. We stand beside you as a community of patients helping patients.

 

 

 

 

Patient Power Infographic

Sources:

http://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/General-Documents-Category/Research-and-Training-Institute/Posters-and-Presentations/Factors-Influencing-Treatment-Decisions-Among-Cancer-Patients.pdf

http://www.patientpower.info/about/survey-results-2014