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A Patient Engagement Manifesto– 6 Principles of Partnership

Recently I presented at a conference on the topic of patient engagement. I spoke to the audience, mainly comprised of digital technology start-ups, about the need to find ways to engage patients meaningfully in healthcare design.  Too many developers think they understand what patients need, but in reality, many appear to be motivated more by the cleverness of a technology than actual improvements in health outcomes.  A 2015 study from the New York University School of Medicine Department of Population Health reported that only 29% of smartphone owners using health apps say the apps have made a big impact on their health.

In thinking about this month’s blog topic, it occurred to me that it might be useful to have some guiding principles you can turn to when you are next called upon to take on a patient advisory role. Whether it’s a clinical trial, a new app, or improving hospital safety standards, patients and caregivers are increasingly becoming engaged in the design process.  However, not every organization understands how to engage patients in a purposeful way. Frequently patient participation never moves beyond a tokenistic consultation or a tick box exercise. So it’s up to us as patients and caregivers to lead the way and show the healthcare industry what meaningful engagement really looks like.

In my talk, I presented a roadmap to guide developers towards a worthwhile way to engage patients. A roadmap can be equally relevant to you as a patient advocate to guide your participation in the co-design process. Each of the following six principles reflect the value of patients as experts with rich insights and experience. Never underestimate the expertise you bring to healthcare and don’t allow others to minimize your contribution. Lived experience is equal to other forms of knowledge, evidence, and expertise.  Clinicians may be experts in disease, developers in technology, but you are the expert in your own life. You know better than anyone what it takes to live with your condition every day and which challenges you face in managing your illness. Ultimately, it is your insights that will help build a better healthcare system or solution.

6 Principles of Patient Engagement – From the Patient Perspective

1. Engage Us in Ways That Are Personally Meaningful

In an article entitled, Who Gives Us the Right to “Empower” Patients? , the authors point out that the health care system “continues to focus on engaging patients in behaviors that are deemed desirable from a mainly biomedical perspective: taking medications as prescribed, or maintaining a BMI below 25, for example. These desirable behaviors are considered universal, and it is assumed that all patients should engage in them to be optimally healthy. No space is left for individual patient goals, needs, desires, abilities, backgrounds, and other factors that make humans, and humanity, so rich and diverse.”

You cannot design health care solutions or services without taking into account patient values and preferences and the context in which we live our lives. Healthcare is complex; it’s connected to a lot of things which have nothing to do with technology. A failure to recognise the complexity of health systems and the reality of patients’ lives will continue to lead to short-sighted health initiatives.

2. Engage Us Where We Are – Not Where You Wish We Were

The most successful health applications are those that understand the real-life problems that come with living with a condition and creates solutions that meet real life needs. If an application does not solve a problem for the patient, it will not be adopted. As Amy Tenderich, founder of Diabetes Mine has said, “we will use tools that answer our questions and solve our problems. We will avoid tools that help us do what you think we should do and we won’t use tools that add to the work of caring for ourselves.”

Alex Butler, in an article entitled How To Build Successful Mobile Health Applications, wrote, “The question is not, ‘Does it solve a problem for the developer, or even the patient’s clinician?’ The real question is, ‘Does it help the patient directly? ’  If an application is in any way a hindrance, or adds any further time to the investment people must make into their healthcare, it will not be used.”

3. Engage Us Early in the Design Process

A report by Accenture revealed that just two percent of patients at hospitals are using proprietary health apps provided for them. This staggeringly low figure represents an alarming waste of resources. Accenture concluded that hospital apps are failing to engage patients by not aligning their functionality with what patients actually need. For example, only 11 percent of the apps surveyed offer at least one of three functions most desired by patients: access to medical records; the ability to book, change and cancel appointments; and the ability to request prescription refills. If those hospital app developers had worked with patients from the earliest design stages, they would be much more likely to produce an end product that patients would actually want to use.  “Co-design,” in the words of Renza Scibilia in her recent post Co-designing Co-design, does not mean showing a finished product to someone and asking for ‘feedback.’” It’s about involving patients right from the start of the design process.

Similarly, when it comes to research, it’s important that patients frame the research question. Historically, researchers have framed questions which are not particularly relevant to patients. As an example, the research priorities of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and the clinicians looking after them, were shown in a study to favor more rigorous evaluation of physiotherapy and surgery, and assessment of educational and coping strategies. Only 9% of patients wanted more research on drugs, yet over 80% of randomized controlled trials in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were drug evaluations.

4. Engage Us in Progress Reports

Genuine engagement is about shifting the traditional paradigm of patients as passive participants, to one in which we are fully involved as contributors who have a sense of ownership in outcomes. However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been involved as a patient advisor on a research proposal or steering committee and received no updates on its progress.  In her brilliant post, Patient Engagement: You’re Doing it Wrong, Isabel Jordan captures the feeling of being used which many of us feel in this situation. “I traded my family’s story for what, exactly?” she asks, “I don’t know, because I was never informed. Engaging patients means keeping us informed of the results of engagement. What happened to me is harmful. It took me from my home, away from my family, put me in a place of vulnerability, and put me in a place where I wasn’t respected.”

Sue Robbins, another vocal advocate of meaningful engagement agrees, and asks the question “how is it that patients and families are used for their stories and then crudely discarded? Why has even the common courtesy of responding to emails gone?”

5. Engage Us as Equal Partners

I also believe that valuing patients as equal partners extends to paying them for their time and expertise. Not everyone agrees with this position. But if those round the table are being paid, why not the patient who is also sharing their time and expertise? As Annette McKinnon, a founding member of the Patient Advisors Network (PAN), puts it, “patients can work as hard as anyone else in the health professions, and yet they are the only ones at the table with no badge, and who are not being rewarded for their efforts?”

Tessa Richards, writing in the BMJ, puts forward arguments both for and against payment. Whether or not to pay a patient is contextual, however, she is clear that “in a consultation where other experts are being paid for their time, patients and patient advocates should be too, and this should be standardized. My time and experience are as valuable as any other person at the table who is getting paid for being there. It amazes me how often patients are just expected to be thankful to be invited.” To quote melanoma patient advocate, Kay Curtin, “This is a re-shaping in many ways of what are the defined roles in research. We are talking about the patients knowledge and experience being of equal status to that of all the other interested parties on what research grant money should be spent on.”

(Note: The Change Foundation in Canada has developed a useful decision tool to guide organizations on whether to pay “patient engagement participants.”)

6. Engage Us Beyond Our Stories

Jordan is unequivocal when she says, “stop engaging patients if you’re not actually ready to partner with them.  Stop using our stories to get money for your research and your clinical programs. Our stories belong to us. If you’re going to use me, then I’d better be making decisions with you.”

Engaging with us starts with our stories, but it shouldn’t end with our stories. We are so much more than just “the patient story.” Dig beneath the story and you will find that a patient isn’t a disease with a body attached, but a life into which a disease has intruded. Our stories are not pawns to be used and then discarded.  Respect and value them for being, in the words of David Gilbert, Patient Director @SussexMSK, precious ‘jewels from the caves of suffering.’

(Note: PAN provides some excellent tips on its website, for patients and caregivers who are asked to share their story or experiences. It includes the advice to decline to share your story if you are not emotionally ready to do so.)

Final Thoughts:  Be Prepared To Say No

In a thought-provoking and wonderfully—articulated post on the nature of meaningful patient involvement in pediatric neurodisability research, Jennifer Johannesen suggests that “if there is insufficient effort to justify and substantiate what is being asked of you, or it’s unclear as to why you’re involved, you can decline.”  I am in full agreement with Johannesen and find myself increasingly turning down requests to participate in projects these days on this basis.

I firmly believe that a shift away from the rhetoric of patient engagement towards a genuine model of partnership, needs to come from the ground-up. We as patients have to be, in Johannesen’s words the “conscience, and the critical voice.” We need to challenge patient tokenism and push for real outcomes. We need to spur organizations to design solutions that not only work technically, but make a real difference in the lives of patients.   Only then can we hope to see the true meaning of patient engagement become a reality. To steal a line from David Gilbert, “nobody is going to take us seriously if we don’t.”

 

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.


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What’s a Patient Scientist?

I recently attended a conference called “Patients As Partners” which focused on the benefits of Pharma companies using patients early during the development of clinical trials.  One company (I don’t remember which one) said that they had begun referring to patients in this role as “patient scientists”. I hadn’t heard this term before but it struck me as profound to the point where I even tweeted about it…and I don’t tweet on a regular basis.

Why did I find this term so encompassing?  First a bit of background.  I was diagnosed with a blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma and given 2-3 years to live.  That was 23 years ago but with lots of treatment…chemotherapy, 3 transplants (including one allogeneic transplant using donor stem cells), several rounds of radiation and 2 clinical trials.  During the last 15 years I’ve become quite active in myeloma: facilitating our local San Francisco Bay Area myeloma support group, volunteering with several myeloma advocacy organizations, and attending medical conferences like the annual American Society of Hematology and International Myeloma Working Group conferences.  And most recently, I’m helping provide a patient perspective during the design and approval of myeloma clinical trials for SWOG (a National Clinical Trial Network group) and the National Cancer Institute.

At these conferences and clinical trial meetings, almost all the attendees are MD’s and PhD’s and it can honestly be quite intimidating to ask questions and make suggestions. But then I heard the phrase “patient scientist”. In fact, none of those doctors in the room have the expertise that I do being a myeloma patient. None of them have been treated with chemotherapy, had a transplant, or been the “recipient” of a dozen bone marrow biopsy/aspirates. I really am an expert, or “scientist”, in being a patient, having experienced the physical and mental demands that go along with trying to survive with good quality of life.  And by sharing experiences with other patients, I’m able to offer a valuable perspective when designing future trials.  As a “patient scientist”, I take very seriously my role and the responsibilities that go along with it. And I’m always appreciative that those MD’s and PhD’s consider my input as they do each others.

Empowered Patient Nejat

Nejat is a 28-year student majoring in public health who attended our digital sherpa™ Workshop in Philadelphia, PA. After she shared her inspiring story with us, I asked if I could interview her to share her story of empowerment with you.

Kara: Why did you decide to study public health?

Nejat: I really decided to apply for public health because I wanted to do nursing but felt that I couldn’t get in. I never thought I would end up loving public health so much. It really helped me understand so much of my health. It really taught me how to advocate for myself. I am planning to apply for nursing school soon.

Kara: How and when were you first diagnosed?

Nejat: I was sick in January of 2017, the doctor told me that I shouldn’t have came to the emergency room for stomach pain.  He didn’t give me a CT scan, he tried to prescribe something for pain but I left after being upset. I had emergency surgery in March 2017 after I got sick in the morning and couldn’t stop throwing up. They told me I had a half cyst and half mass. Which measured about 17cm in my stomach The mass had immature germ cells which was considered cancerous.  I started chemo July due to being put on surveillance so when it started regrowing chemo therapy was the second step. I did 12 weeks straight of chemo. B.E.P was the regimen.

Kara: What does being an empowered patient mean to you?

Nejat: It means to go to the doctors office and know exactly what is wrong with you. To understand the options of treatments available. To request a second opinion and feel like you have a choice. To take control of your health and healing.

Kara: How did you know that you needed to advocate for yourself?

Nejat: I never liked not knowing what was wrong with me. I would research and read forums day and night. When doctors tried to plan according to what they felt best I always tried to understand it so I could figure out if it was best for them or me. Most doctors would tell me things off of research. During chemo most of what I experience was different than what they seen in research. I felt like if I never opened my mouth and spoke often. Those 12 weeks would have really been worse. Each new word I went back and googled the definition. Each symptoms I looked up. I dictated what I wanted and I can say it worked great in the end. I am on the road to recovery

Kara: How do you navigate advocating for yourself?

Nejat: I ask for options. I google everything, I look at forums. I join and ask questions.

Kara: Do you think that it is important to find a doctor that you feel comfortable?

Nejat: Yes! I had a doctor tell me she had to do surgery which didn’t align with what my other doctor told me. I told her no and went to a different doctor which gave me options. I felt that she didn’t hear my voice. She didn’t give me options. Yes I’m sick but let me feel I still have a little control of my decisions.

Kara: How has managing your condition affected your daily life as a college student?

Nejat: It starts with your mind set. I have been positive through out my journey. I am determined to not let my hardships be the reason I fail. I have my bad and good days but I try to keep pushing. I am still in school and a few months away from graduation. Though I’m still recovery I’m pushing. I do acupuncture to help my neuropathy and vitamin C to heal rebuild my body.

Kara: What are your tips to help someone become an empowered patient?

Nejat: Start with thinking positive you can make your journey less stressful with thinking positive always look for second opinions if you can. Trust how you feel and never look at cancer as if it’s the end keep fighting.

Introducing Darla Brown: An Empowered Patient

People with cancer who actively participate in their fight for recovery along with their physicians and healthcare professionals will improve the quality of their lives and may enhance the possibility of their recovery. Combining the will of the patient with the skill of the physician – A powerful combination.” ~ Harold Benjamin, PhD, 1982

In 2010 I became very sick. I was losing weight, had excruciating pain in my pelvis, and had extremely heavy, abnormal menstrual bleeding. I went to a doctor to get help. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of my healthcare saga. I went through several late nights in emergency rooms (often sent away with painkillers), to more ultrasounds than I could count, to countless specialists, and yet the pain and other symptoms only worsened.

The first doctor I visited assumed the culprit was an ovarian cyst and each subsequent doctor I saw took her word for it.  I should admit something at this point in my story. Up until this point, I tended to be passive about my health care. I didn’t question diagnoses or treatments. When so many doctors agreed on my diagnosis, how could I question them? However, when I eventually became “patient active” (a term that I later learned), it actually saved my life.

One sleepless night, I woke up on the floor of my kitchen. The anemia (a result of the abnormal menstrual bleeding) had caused me to pass out while getting a glass of water and I had hit my head.  I went back to the doctor the next day and insisted more tests be done.  I implored, “Please don’t send me home again without a real diagnosis.” I demanded something be done. This was my first step to becoming an empowered patient.

Empowered patients realize that they have to make the healthcare system work for them. Through my experience I realized:

  • It is too easy to get passed around from doctor to doctor in our healthcare system. This wastes valuable time.
  • It is easy for doctors, who can be overburdened, to focus on the most squeaky wheel and forget about passive patients.
  • Had I been empowered sooner in my healthcare journey, I would have gotten to a diagnosis sooner and my cancer would not have become life threatening. My cervical cancer symptoms were actually evident from the start and yet I went undiagnosed for several months.

I was finally diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer and found a wonderful healthcare team at Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center. I didn’t have insurance at the time (I was too sick to work and this was before the ACA/Obamacare) but I did qualify for a California state run program called the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program (BCCTP).

By the time I actually got into treatment, the tumor had grown and had positioned itself inside my cervix so that surgery to remove it was no longer an option. Instead, I went through two months of daily external radiation, weekly internal radiation (also known as brachytherapy), and weekly chemotherapy treatments. I am so grateful that it was treatable, and I am thankful for the healthcare system that made it so. However, had I been properly diagnosed and treated earlier on, I would have required less invasive and less expensive treatments.

Since my diagnosis and recovery, I have spoken to many patients about their experiences and I am honored to be invited to share those stories and lessons in future blog posts.

The Best of 2016

As 2016 comes to an end, we would like to take a moment to highlight a few of our most popular posts from each month and to thank the people who contributed to the popularity of these posts. We cannot thank the authors and organizations enough that have contributed to make 2016 one for the books, such as Marie Ennis-O’Connor, Melissa Van Houten, Treatment Diaries, David Wallace, Marcia Donziger, and Edward Leigh. Your efforts to Patient Empowerment Network are greatly appreciated.

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January

Designing With The Patient In Mind

Marie Ennis-O’Conner  explains how the potential of digital technology will never be realized if unless the stakeholders work alongside patients in co-designing solutions that will truly engage, enable, and empower the end-user.

Edward Leigh’s Top 366 Tips

After a decade of work and personal experiences, Ed created the educational tool – Engaging Your Patients 2016 Calendar. In this calendar, there is a tip-a-day to connect, interview and educate patients in the hopes of improving patient satisfaction and safety.

February

5 Simple Steps to Become a Twitter Pro

Short how-to for beginners to learn how to use twitter to become educated and empowered patients

Complications Post Cancer Treatment

From Treatment Diaries, a “cancer free” patient shares the daily complications from the treatments that cured the cancer.

March

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

Marie Ennis-O’Connor explores the importance of shared decision-making (SDM).

Tweetchats: What Are They? How Can I Participate?

A concise guide to help you understand and participate in Tweetchats.

April

The Power of Content Curation For Healthcare Communities

Marie Ennis-O’Connor explains the importance of more accessible, understandable, and credible healthcare information rather than just more untrustworthy content.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) 101 Storify

CLL 101 is an online course offered through ePatient101.com created in partnership with the Patient Empowerment Network and Intake.me. To introduce our course, a #patientchat was held on March 18 at 1 PM EST and the included tweets are some highlights from the chat.

May

MRD Testing For Myeloma: What Is It?, Why Should It Be Used?, and Why?

Interview with C. Ola Landgren, MD, PhD, Chief, Myeloma Service Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Latest Research and Advancement in Multiple Myeloma

Interview with Thomas Martin, MD, Associate Director at the Myeloma Institute UCSF Medical Center.

June

Living Well With CLL

Interview with Patient Advocate, Jennifer Abraham.

What is Telehealth? How Can It Benefit Patients?

A concise explanation of telehealth plus top ways that it can benefit patients

July

The Conversation: Getting The Right Treatment and Testing For Lung Cancer

Panel Interview with lung cancer experts Emma Shtivelman, PhD, Chief Scientist Cancer Commons, Mary Ellen Hand, RN, BSN, Nurse Coordinator Rush University Medical Center, and Stage 4 Lung Cancer Patient, Mary Williams.

A Person Centered Approach To The Care of Chronic Illness

Marie Ennis-O’Connor describes the need for chronic illness patients to be treated as whole people rather than pieces of people.

August

Spotlight on: MPN Cancer Connection (MPN-CC)

Interview with David Wallace, founder of PV Reporter and MPN Cancer Connection.

How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News

Marie Ennis-O’Connor shares her tips to separate fact from fiction when searching for reliable medical information.

September

Seven Steps to a Successful Digital Advocacy Strategy

Marie Ennis-O’Connor gives seven tips to engage your audience online and inspire them to take action around your cause by using digital tools and applications.

How Can Cancer Patients Contribute To Science?

From the Lung Cancer Town Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, Janet Freeman-Daily interviewed Dr. D. Ross Camidge about how lung cancer patients can contribute to cancer research.

October

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Blogging About Your Illness

Marie Ennis-O’Connor shares some of her concerns and experience about blogging about her illness.

Thanks to Social Media, Rare Progress on Rare Diseases

Recently, social media has been a big part of advances in how we identify and treat rare disease. Patients with these diseases are for the first time able to reach across geographic and cultural borders to band together, giving critical mass to efforts like fundraising and clinical trial enrollment that might otherwise wither away.

Chronic Illness: Oh, The Stress of It All 

Melissa Van Houten shares her story and discusses the stress that comes along with a chronic illness.

November

The digital sherpa™ Workshop Main Takeaways

Overview of our pilot digital sherpa™ Workshop.

What Records Should You Bring For A Second Opinion Appointment?

From the Lung Cancer Town Meeting in September 2016, the panel of lung cancer experts talk about what patients should bring to their second opinion.

5 Lessons Learned From An Ovarian Cancer Survivor

MyLifeLine.org founder and ovarian cancer survivor, Marcia Donziger shares 5 of the lessons learned after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 27.

December

Looking Back On 2016 With Andrew Schorr

Amy Gray interviews Andrew Schorr on his thoughts about the advances in cancer treatment in 2016.

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

In her latest blog, Marie Ennis-O’Connor, gives 15 tips to help you become a more empowered and engaged partner in your own health – and the health of those you care for.

How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News

Ben Goldacre writing in Bad Science classified science reporting as falling into three categories – wacky stories, scare stories and breakthrough stories; the last of which he views as ”a more subtly destructive category of science story”. Whether you get your news through digital or traditional means, you can’t fail to notice the regularity with which journalists report on the latest medical breakthroughs. Some of these reports are sensationalist (“coffee causes cancer”) and fairly easy to dismiss; but do you know how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to less sensationalist headlines?

The foundation of empowered patient-hood is built on reliable health information. This means not only knowing where to find medical information, but being able to evaluate it and knowing how it can be applied to your own, or your loved-ones’ particular circumstances. Headlines often mislead people into thinking a certain substance or activity will prevent or cure chronic 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 are designed to help sort the signal from the noise next time you read the latest news story heralding a medical breakthrough.

1. Does the article support its claims with scientific research?

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article contains no link to scientific research to support its claims, then be very wary about treating those claims as scientifically credible.

2. What is the original source of the article?

If the article cites scientific research you should still treat the findings with caution. Always consider the source. Find out where the study was done. Who paid for and conducted the study? Is there a potential conflict of interest?

3. Does the article contain expert commentary to back up claims?

Look for expert independent commentary from doctors or other healthcare providers to explain the findings (there should be an independent expert source quoted – someone not directly connected with the research).

4. Is this a conference presentation?

Journalists frequently report on research presented at large scientific meetings. It’s important to realize that this research may only be at a preliminary stage and may not fulfill its early promise.

5. What kind of clinical trial is being reported on?

If the news relates to results from a clinical trial, it’s important you understand how, or even if, the results apply to you. Quite often, news publications report on trials which have not yet been conducted on humans. Many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. Cancer.Net and American Cancer Society have useful guides to understanding the format of cancer research studies.

6. What stage is the trial at?

Research studies must go through several phases before a treatment can be considered safe and effective; but many times journalists report on early phase trials as if these hold all the answers. The testing process in humans is divided into several phases:

  •  Phase I trials: Researchers test a new drug or treatment in a small group of people for the first time to evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects.
  • Phase II trials: The drug or treatment is given to a larger group of people to see if it is effective and to further evaluate its safety.
  • Phase III trials: The drug or treatment is given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug or treatment to be used safely.

Source: ClinicalTrials.gov

7. How many people did the research study include?

In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical power.

8. Did the study include a control group?

A control group allows researchers to compare outcomes in those who receive a treatment with those who don’t. The gold standard is a “randomised controlled trial”, a study in which participants are randomly allocated to receive (or not receive) a particular intervention (e.g. a treatment or a placebo).

9. What are the study’s limitations?

Many news stories fail to point out the limitations of the evidence. The limitations of a study are the shortcomings, conditions or influences that cannot be controlled by the researcher. Any limitations that might influence the results should be mentioned in the study’s findings, so always read the original study where possible.

Useful Resources

  • Gary Schweitzer’s Health News Review website provides many useful resources to help you determine the trustworthiness of medical news. To date, it has reviewed more than 1,000 news stories concerning claims made for treatments, tests, products and procedures.
  • Sense about Science works with scientists and members of the public to equip people to make sense of science and evidence. It responds to hundreds of requests for independent advice and questions on scientific evidence each year.
  • Trust It or Trash is a tool to help you think critically about the quality of health information (including websites, handouts, booklets, etc.).
  • Understanding Health Research (UHR) is a free service created with the intention of helping people better understand health research in context. It gives clear and understandable explanations of important considerations like sampling, bias, uncertainty and replicability.

Events

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