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.”
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. A board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, a network of people, foundations, organizations and medical institutions dedicated to empowering patients worldwide, Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.