Tag Archive for: digital literacy

Internet Access, Digital Literacy, and Bridging the Digital Divide

In the modern healthcare era along with navigating COVID-19 infection concerns, Internet service and digital literacy are more important than ever for cancer patients and their loved ones. Telemedicine serves cancer patients with multiple benefits, some of which include protecting them from infection and virus risks, providing easy ways to refill prescriptions, schedule appointments, and view test results; and reducing time, costs, and stress of traveling to and from appointments. 

Internet Access, Digital Literacy, and the Digital Divide

Yet cancer patient advocates must look closely at Internet access, digital literacy, and the digital divide to support more underserved patients. A recent National Cancer Institute study of cancer patients and caregivers showed that 90 percent had Internet access, and 82 percent owned a smartphone. While these statistics look promising, there is still more work to be done to help underserved patients. Examining results from a recent study of rural cancer survivors reveals a digital divide. Medicare-covered cancer survivors in rural areas had telehealth availability 53 percent of the time compared to 63 percent in urban areas. Rural cancer survivors are also less likely to own desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, or tablets at a rate of 67 percent versus urban cancer survivors at 82 percent. Internet access also needs improvement with Medicare-covered rural cancer survivors at 58 percent access versus 79 percent in urban areas. 

Furthermore, Black and Hispanic survivors had lower technology ownership, with 65 percent of Black survivors and 67 percent of Hispanic survivors owning a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet versus 82 percent of white survivors. “Despite the potential of telehealth to meet the unique healthcare needs of cancer survivors (e.g., surveillance, comorbidities, primary and survivorship care), some patient groups face greater barriers to technology access,” the study authors wrote. “These patterned differences in use and access underscore a need to engage multilevel interventions to mitigate the underlying barriers to telehealth use.” 

U.S. Financial Support of Digital Healthcare Access

What can vulnerable cancer patients do to improve their situation if they’re lacking in Internet service or technology literacy? Fortunately, President Biden has put racial equity at center stage of his agenda and is working to end disparities in healthcare access and education. The  Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act helped provide telehealth and connected care services to patients, and the proposed infrastructure bill could help extend support. The U.S. federal government has taken action to help those in need of Internet service or improved Internet service. As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, President Biden and Vice President Harris operated with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to create the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The ACP provides eligible households with a high-speed Internet plan for no more than $30 per month. The Biden-Harris Administration has received commitments from some leading internet providers to offer ACP-eligible families who pair their ACP benefit with one of these plans to receive high-speed Internet at no cost. You can easily check to see if you qualify here.

Digital Literacy Training

For those looking to improve their digital literacy, Patient Empowerment Network can help people build their skills. The PEN digital sherpa™ Program and Digitally Empowered™ Course help cancer patients (mainly 65 and older) and their families become better prepared for their cancer journey. The goal is for participants to learn to use technology to their advantage and to become more tech-savvy. The program’s workshops help educate patients and care partners in basic Internet and social media skills to help them in their search for information about their illness and support resources for themselves and their families.

University students, known collectively as “sherpas,” have been specially trained by the Patient Empowerment Network to offer technology skills and are paired with program participants. The sherpas empower patients and care partners by training them in skills such as: 

  • Safely navigating online healthcare resources
  • Finding credible online resources
  • Forming online disease support communities
  • Using telemedicine
  • Navigating your health with social media
  • Using rideshare and wellness apps
  • Following and connecting with experts online

The Digitally Empowered Course opens access to a whole new world of knowledge and tools to assist you in researching your condition, asking informed questions, and taking an active role in shared decision-making with your care team. The 10-module Digitally Empowered course trains participants in:

  • How to access the Internet
  • Identifying credible resources and websites
  • The benefits of your patient portal
  • Using social media to connect and learn
  • Navigating your health with mobile devices
  • Apps to use for convenience and fun
  • How to use telemedicine
  • Accessing and joining online support communities

The pandemic brought some issues to light about gaps in Internet service and digital literacy. But vulnerable and underserved cancer patients and their loved ones no longer need to remain in that state. They now have options to move them toward becoming empowered and informed. 

Empowered and tech-savvy patients have the ability to build more support for themselves and to build knowledge and confidence. With increased confidence, patients feel more at ease to ask questions when they interact with their healthcare team members. This fortified knowledge and confidence then empowers them to make more informed decisions for optimal health outcomes and improved quality of life for patients. These results make a clear win-win for formerly underserved cancer patients and for those who work to support these patients.


Sources

https://mhealthintelligence.com/news/rural-cancer-survivors-report-low-telehealth-availability-internet-access

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34428075/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/getinternet/?utm_source=getinternet.gov

CSC Arizona Embraces digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer Program

When the staff at Cancer Support Community (CSC) Arizona heard about the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program, they knew it was just the kind of programming they were looking for. “We wanted to be able to help the more vulnerable members of our community,” says Caitlin Morrissey, CSC Arizona’s Executive Administrative Coordinator. The goal was to help make things easier for the cancer patients they serve, and Caitlin says that helping patients to navigate things like social media and ride shares, and helping them to connect with loved ones as well as their healthcare providers through PEN’s digital sherpa™ program, was a great way to start.

The digital sherpa™ program is designed to help cancer patients (who are mainly 65 and older) learn to use technology as a tool to help them through their cancer journey. Patients and their care partners can learn basic internet and social media skills. They can also learn how to access their patient portals and find information and support regarding their illness. Patients can also have their specific technology-related questions answered. Organizations who want to implement the digital sherpa™ program can utilize the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program, which is designed to do exactly what it says. The program trains volunteers and other individuals to be trainers, or sherpas, for the digital sherpa™ program.

“It’s an amazing program and I’m excited to be a part of it,” says Caitlin who started overseeing the digital sherpa™ and the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer programs shortly after CSC Arizona adopted them in early December 2021. Despite beginning the program during the busy holiday season and while their offices were still operating remotely due to the pandemic, Caitlin has already seen impactful results. She says participants are relieved and excited when they learn what their devices can do, and they have provided very positive feedback through program surveys. Participant Arcelia Lopez said the program gave her access to a new world.

 

“From the very beginning to the end was an opportunity to have an experience that opened a new world,” Arcelia wrote. “This was a lifesaving experience that I embraced. Everything that was offered and designed was so conducive to learning and building self-confidence.”

Arcelia’s survey responses solidified Caitlin’s passion for the program. “It was amazing to have that feedback from her. It really drives home how important this is,” says Caitlin.

In 2021, organizations like CSC Arizona, that participated in the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program received a $2,500 microgrant from PEN to help offer the program to their communities. CSC Arizona didn’t waste any time putting their microgrant to good use. Director of Operations Kyle Jones recognized that some of their community members didn’t have access to computers or devices, so he purchased several Chromebooks for participants to use for the digital sherpa™ workshops. CSC Arizona was also able to give Chromebooks to two individuals, one of which was Arcelia. “Having the gift of the Chromebook changed my life mentally and emotionally and secured my future in having the confidence I needed to maintain my health. It changed me in a way that I didn’t know was possible. It allows me to live in a way that I didn’t know was possible,” wrote Arcelia in response to the program.

Caitlin says that implementing the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program was seamless. She says the program was easy to follow, could be completed online, and didn’t take too much time so they were able to offer help to patients right away. In a short time, CSC Arizona has already used the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program to create a lasting impact in their community. Their fledgling program of trainers includes Caitlin, Kyle Jones, and one outside volunteer. They have offered small group workshops, one-on-one trainings, and have made a house call. Thanks to the online aspects of the program, they were even able to help a patient in Illinois who discovered that they were offering the program and reached out for some help. Going forward Caitlin wants to build the program. She wants to recruit more volunteers and she is already introducing the digital sherpa™ program to new patients as they come into CSC Arizona. She looks forward to adding regular group sessions but also continuing to offer the one-on-one sessions to anyone who needs them. Caitlin also has plans to create and offer the digital sherpa™ workshops specifically geared toward Spanish speaking participants. “I’m really excited to continue offering it and making it better and better as we go along,” she says.

Caitlin and the rest of team at CSC Arizona are utilizing the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program to empower and make a difference in the lives of the cancer patients they serve. “Every detail is looked at and every detail is considered,” Arcelia noted in her survey. “It creates an opportunity to not allow cancer to win.”

How Can CLL Patients Mitigate Distance and Technology Barriers to Care?

How Can CLL Patients Mitigate Distance and Technology Barriers to Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients overcome barriers to their CLL care like distance, technology, and other challenges? Dr. Kathy Kim from UC Davis School of Medicine details the challenges she’s witnessed for patients and some ways that both patients and providers can help bridge the gaps to optimal patient care.

See More from Best CLL Care No Matter Where You Live

Related Resources:

 

What Multi-Language Technology Innovations Are Available for Cancer Patients and Families?

What Key Questions Should CLL Patients Ask About Digital Tools Born Out of COVID?

How Can CLL Patients Avoid Pandemic Challenges Without Compromising Quality of Care?


Transcript:

Dr. Awan:

So is it going to be financially difficult to let’s say, get an app or download an app, which might have a subscription service, attached to it, so that’s the first question that I might have. And the second question is then, this is something that I run into every day. A lot of my patients are older. Some of my patients live on farms, a couple of hours, three, four hours away from Dallas in a relatively rural area, east or west of us in north Texas, and you know those people may not necessarily have access to broadband, they may not have access to high-speed internet. So, they may not be able to get online, or if they do get online, the connections are not the most perfect, so it’s always, the video is not pretty good, or they frankly, may not know how to operate, they don’t just don’t feel comfortable operating these devices or the tablets or phones, even though they might use them for making calls and texting, but they may not necessarily be very conversing with them or very at ease with them, so are those options really difficult for our patients to use?

Dr. Kim:

Yeah, so you’ve mentioned three really key areas, cost, connectivity, and what I will call digital literacy or digital familiarity, those are really three key areas that we need to address for anyone who wants to use these tools to be able to use them. So, cost is the first thing, most mobile apps are fairly inexpensive, and if you’ve downloaded anything from the Apple Store or the Google Play store, almost everything is free, or a few things might have you know $2.99, $8.99. Some of them do have subscription fees. So, the app itself is probably the least expensive part of it. The more expensive part is, do you have a modern smartphone that can actually, where you can download that up or do you have a modern tablet or a newer laptop that can actually use apps, right? Not just software, but apps, those devices is where the cost really comes in, and you know if you’ve got any kind of device, it’s every couple of years, you have to replace it or upgrade it to kind of keep it up-to-date. So that is definitely a barrier of the cost of the computing device or remote patient monitoring device, and that is where we really need to collaborate in the industry with our hospital systems and our provider systems, with our legislative representatives, with our insurance companies, to provide low-cost access to the devices.

The third thing is connectivity, which is both cost, and it is a cost as well as an accessibility issue, and for most of the uses in healthcare, as you’ve mentioned, we need to be able to do video, we need to be able to connect to the devices for data, and that means we either have to have a cell phone data , a mobile data plan that can run data on your phone or your tablet, or you need a broadband connection in your home, an actual Wi-Fi plan that comes installed. You need one or the other. And again, either of those options are quite expensive, if you do video visits, it can really eat up your bandwidth if you’re on a low band, low bandwidth plan or you’re paying for the minute or by the bit. It can become very expensive, so we have to have a cost-effective plan available to people, and again, there’s lots of policies or proposals, to be submitted both at the state level, and there are federal programs that are actually now subsidizing. So specifically, under COVID, provider organizations can apply to the federal government for special funds to offer telehealth help to patients, so many providers have bought tablets or other remote patient monitoring devices or things like that, that they can give out to patients.

Which brings us to the third thing that you mentioned, which is digital familiarity or digital literacy. We have to help people learn how to use these. So even if you use a cell phone, it’s different using a smartphone, right? The apps are different, the navigation is different, how you touch your screen is different, how these applications actually work, and how to get the data from your own device to a provider, to your doctor is a whole another set of skills, right? Do you have to pair these devices, do you have to register an account and have a password? Do you have to approve your doctor to get access, there’s all these questions about how you would actually do all this and this is where organizations like Patient Empowerment Network, that I know does a lot of effort to help patients more how to use technology, as well as the research that we have been doing at UC Davis in the community about how to support patients overcome all these barriers becomes really critical, we have to actually work together to make sure all three of these issues are addressed so that everybody can have access.

February 2021 Digital Health Roundup

Over the past year, with Covid-19 shutdowns keeping people home and out of their doctors’ offices, technology has taken an even more important role in healthcare. From virtual doctor appointments to navigating patient portals, now more than ever, patients need to understand how technology can benefit their health. Each month, Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) will round up some of the most notable digital health news pertinent to empowered patients and their caregivers.

Digital Health

So, what exactly is digital health? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at fda.gov, digital health includes a broad list of categories, such as health information technology, wearable devices, telehealth and telemedicine, and personalized medicine. The influence of digital technology in healthcare is almost infinite and is revolutionizing the healthcare industry, improving the ability to diagnose and treat disease and to improve the way healthcare is delivered to each individual. In addition, digital tools help to empower patients by giving them more control over their health. Patients can use digital technologies to make more-informed decisions and manage their healthcare. Providers use digital health to make healthcare more affordable, more personal, more efficient, and higher quality. The coming together of technology, patients, providers, information, and connectivity lead to overall improvements in healthcare and better health outcomes. Find more information about digital health and how the FDA is focusing on it here.

How Will Technology Influence Healthcare in 2021?

You may be wondering where you are most likely to see technological influence in your healthcare in 2021. There are several areas. Artificial Intelligence (AI) saw a lot of advancements in 2020, and it is expected to be further used to advance healthcare in 2021, says medcitynews.com. In the oncology field, technology advances are changing the way disease is being diagnosed through pathology, which traditionally is a manual process. In 2021, the trend is moving more and more toward digital pathology, which saves times and labor costs. AI advancements are also being used in areas of triage, diagnosis, and analysis. Digital technology can be used to collect and share patient data from a variety of sources so that doctors can determine the best diagnosis and treatment.

Technology is also expected to continue to expand patient access to medical care through telehealth, increasing personalization of care, quality control, and screening protocols. Get more information about the ways AI is predicted to advance healthcare in 2021 here.

Another area that continues to be widely used in healthcare is Virtual Reality (VR), technology that simulates an experience, according to a recently updated article by news-medical.net. Medical training is one of the most prevalent ways VR is used in healthcare. Students can learn how to manage any type of medical situation through VR simulation giving instructors the opportunity to see how the student would respond in real life. VR is also used to simulate surgeries and give medical professionals visual access to the inside of the human body, without having to dissect cadavers. In some cases, VR training is believed to be superior to more conventional forms of medical training. Learn how VR is being used to treat mental health and addiction, manage pain, shorten physical therapy recovery times, and educate patients here.

Patient Access to Care

One of the most important aspects of digital healthcare is access. Patient portals are being used more and more, but not all patients have access to them, reports healthcareitnews.com. A study involving kidney patients found that many patients aren’t actively engaged in their care and that interventions are needed to make sure all patients have access to patient tools. Patient portals provide access to personal records and educational resources, but studies show that black patients, older patients, and patients who use Medicaid as their primary insurance were not as likely to use patient portals as white patients, younger patients, and patients with other types of insurance. Researchers found that patients who used the portals had more knowledge and better health status, and that they had less disease-related stress. While the use of portals is promoted by health systems, they may actually be widening health disparities for patients who aren’t using or don’t have access to the portals. The study suggests that more effort needs to be made to ensure that all patients have access to the digital tools that can help improve their patient outcomes. Learn more here.

Recognizing that technology is advancing care for many, but that it can also further expand the digital divide, a new group to address the disparities in access to healthcare has been launched, reports healthcareitnews.com. The Telehealth Equity Commission, made up of groups who attended the American Telemedicine Association’s EDGE policy conference, plans to use a data-driven approach to help improve telehealth policy. Learn more here.

One thing is certain: digital technology is here to stay, and its influence on patient health is expanding. To ensure that you have access to all the latest digital healthcare, become a Digitally Empowered patient through Patient Empowerment Network’s free Digitally Empowered™ Course. The course will help you to become more tech-savvy so you can research your condition, ask informed questions, and take an active role in shared decision making with your care team. Access the course here.

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.


2020 Update: Patient Empowerment Revisited: What Does It Truly Mean To Patients?

 

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