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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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(Self)Knowledge = (Em)Power(ment)

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – A. A. Milne

Finding yourself sitting on an exam table, or lying in a hospital bed, can be scary. Annual well-check visits to your primary care doc are one thing, but if one of those visits starts you on a journey through the maze of treating a diagnosis of cancer, or Parkinson’s, or [insert name of life-changing condition here], you find yourself feeling pretty overwhelmed.

My mantra has long been “be your own best advocate.” I learned this from my parents, who were e-patients long before that term was even coined. When I started my own cancer treatment journey ten years ago, I sprang into self-advocacy mode even before I had a confirmed diagnosis. I asked questions, worked to understand the answers, pressed for clarification when I needed it, on a “lather, rinse, repeat” cycle throughout the months between mammogram the end of active treatment; that process continues to today.

Since I just got my 10 Year Cancer-versary mammogram today (January 11, 2018), I figured my January PEN post would be a great place to share some of my how-to on being your own best healthcare advocate.

Let’s start with the basics, questions you can ask in any healthcare setting when a nurse or doctor outlines an issue, and a treatment plan for that issue, with you. This is straight from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and the National Patient Safety Foundation – they call it Ask Me 3:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

This will work for anything from an upper respiratory infection to a badly sprained ankle to a hypertension diagnosis. It helps you learn more about the issue at hand, and opens up a dialogue where you can add information about your medical history, your family history, your preferences about medical treatment, and any concerns you have about treatment outcomes and side effects. e-Patient Health Literacy 101, if you will. The Ask Me 3 program link above includes some really superb health literacy materials, too. I encourage you to read through them, and to share them with your family and your community. I’m all about “the more you know” in healthcare.

If you want some e-Patient Health Literacy 201 questions to take to your next doctor’s appointment, I put together a handout I call the Must Ask List. I use this one-sheet constantly, at healthcare events where I’m invited to speak and in webinars where I share my thinking on patient engagement, health literacy, and health system innovation. Please feel free to use and share it – if you have questions you’d like to see added to it, let me know.

It takes a village to change the world. In the global village working to improve human health, it’s critical that we all share what we’ve learned, and look to learn from others with expertise in both the getting, and the giving, of medical care.

Doctors + patients x knowledge sharing = health and healthcare system improvement at light speed.

That’s my formula, and I’m sticking to it!

Mapping the Patient Information Journey

Patients need appropriate information tailored to their specific needs at each step of the care pathway. This should begin on the day of diagnosis and continue on through treatment and long term self-management.  Your healthcare journey is a continuum and your information needs change as you move along the patient pathway.  When you are first diagnosed, you will have many questions, fears, and concerns. Having answers to your questions can help you understand your diagnosis better and feel more in control about your treatment decisions. How much information you want is up to you. Some patients feel overwhelmed by too much information at this stage.  Others say they didn’t receive enough information.  While information upon first diagnosis is vitally important, we may be in shock and in a heightened emotional state which makes it difficult to fully comprehend all the information we receive at the beginning.

Several years ago, when I raised the question on my blog of whether you can have too much information, Dr Deana Attai, Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at UCLA Health, pointed out that “it can be difficult to navigate all the information and options that are available”. Dr Attai recommends you “take your time, get organized, and if possible, bring a trusted friend or family member to appointments with you. If that is not an option, ask if you can record the consultation – that way you can focus just on listening, and go back and review the whole conversation later. Slowly sort through the information, do some research, and ask more questions if needed before you make a decision on treatment.”

Patients make the best decisions when armed with the right information.  Research has shown 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 have a more active role in decision-making. Shared decision-making (SDM) is the conversation that happens between a patient and physician to reach a healthcare choice together. Examples include decisions about surgery, medications, self-management, and screening and diagnostic tests. Decision aids that are based on research evidence are designed to show information about different options and help patients reach an informed choice. There are a number of tools available to support the SDM process such as information sheets, DVDs, interactive websites, cates plots or options grids.  A 2012 Cochrane review found that patients who use decision aids improve their knowledge of their treatment options, have more accurate expectations of the potential benefits and risks, reach choices that accord with their values, and more actively participate in decision making. It’s important that the information you receive is tailored to your age and specific needs. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the information I was given wasn’t tailored to my needs as a young woman with breast cancer. The information was aimed at a much older patient demographic and didn’t reflect the impact that breast cancer would have on me as a young woman living with the disease.

As you move along the patient journey and better understand your illness, you may want higher levels of information. However, you may find the information healthcare professionals provide has not keep pace with your increased needs. This is the point where many patients turn online to seek more information. While the Internet can be a useful source of health information, it’s important to know how to critically evaluate the information you find online. This previous article, How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News has many helpful tips and resources to guide you. Always discuss what you find online with your doctor and ask them to put the information into context for your particular situation.

Increasingly patients are turning to their peers online, using social media to seek out the experiences of other patients to help guide their healthcare decision making. Reading information in a brochure doesn’t compare to the ability to interact and ask questions in a social networking site.   US Department of Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer, Susannah Fox, has labelled this trend as “peer-to-peer health care”.  She observed how “people living with chronic diseases (and their caregivers) are especially likely to say they look online for peer advice. They are pioneering new ways of pursuing health by banding together and sharing knowledge”.  This model of seeking and sharing information online has given rise to a new breed of expert patient – the ePatient. Dr Tom Ferguson who coined the term used it to describe patients who are “smart, motivated and experienced with an impressive and up-to-date knowledge of the best resources, centres, treatments, research, and specialists for their conditions.”

Once the initial diagnosis stage has passed, and you are moving through and beyond treatment, your information needs will also include every-day coping tips and long-term strategies to manage your care. This is where peer-to-peer support is particularly helpful. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that one in five Internet users have gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to theirs.  That percentage is even higher – one in four – among those living with chronic disease, or caring for someone with a disease. Not surprisingly, doctors remain the first choice for an accurate medical diagnosis. But the number of patients saying they turn to their friends, family and other patients for day-to-day advice, and emotional support is higher. Dr Ferguson observed “when it comes to aspects of illness that some clinicians may consider secondary – such as practical coping tips or the psychological and social aspects of living with the condition – some experienced (ePatients) can provide other patients with particularly helpful advice.”

Apart from social networks hosted by patient advocacy groups, medical facilities, and health sites, patients are blogging about their experiences, sharing stories of coping with diagnoses and dealing with their diseases on a daily basis. On Facebook, which continues to be the number one social networking site, groups can be private or public places where users share coping tips, ask questions and find a sense of connection. While Facebook groups and pages are useful resources for patients, Twitter takes the healthcare conversation to another level. Here you have a greater mix of patients, physicians, healthcare professionals, and medical researchers, all coming together in one virtual space to discuss healthcare matters. Use #hashtags to search for health-related information and join Twitter chats related to your health condition. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project. I use Twitter as my personal learning network, a real time information resource in which I am globally connected with patient peers and health professionals.

It has been over a decade since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Today as I look back on how far the journey has taken me, I can chart my progress towards becoming a patient advocate through the quality of the information I received along the way.  My progress was advanced step-by-step by learning more about my disease initially from doctors, then through Internet searches and patient peers online. Now I have become the person sharing my experience to help others along the pathway. And I am not alone. By sharing your journey too, you can help shed light on a condition’s symptoms, prognosis, and other details for those still searching for the correct diagnosis or learning how to cope with an illness, its treatment, and long-term care. As advocates, I believe it’s part of our job to make sure that all patients receive timely, accurate and understandable information to help guide decision-making. We have a wealth of hard-won wisdom and information to share, so let’s share generously with others who are just starting out on their own patient journeys.

Ask yourself who can you help today?

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.

ePatient 101 Course – Thoughts and Opinions

Having trouble navigating the healthcare industry? Overwhelmed with all the decisions you need to make? Buried in all of the information? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then the ePatient 101 Course could be just what you’re looking for. ePatient 101 was created by Intake.me to empower patients, caregivers, or patient advocates in all of their health matters. Being an “ePatient” means becoming empowered, educated, and engaged in your disease.

The course is laid out in four key components:

  • The course itself with tips and advice from experts and patients
  • Exercises to form your own ePatient toolkit
  • Technological tools to help organize your information on the intake.me platform
  • Patient chat community for support and troubleshooting

This format allows you to have the confidence and strength to be able to best advocate for yourself. This course has received rave reviews and you can read some of those below. Oh, and did I mention it’s free to all!

“What’s great about the virtual learning environment is that it allows you to combine video, audio and other multimedia content from multiple sources into one, easy-to-access place. Users get carefully curated content that feels fresh and that they can complete at their own pace.

“The benefit of the eLearning environment is that its able to meet you where you are… you can do it anytime, anywhere, and you don’t need to spend a lot of time or money to gain valuable tools and insight on topics that can greatly impact your health and the health of those around you.”
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Coming Soon!
“We are excited to partner with the Patient Empowerment Network because our missions align perfectly: we’re all passionate about empowering patients throughout their healthcare journey. With the folks at Patient Empowerment Network, we’re able to provide our first disease-specific courses, starting with CLL 101 (Chronic lymphocytic leukemia), and we look forward to co-creating more courses through our partnership in the future.” – Darla Brown, intake.me founder

[lead]Join us on Fri 3/18 1 PM ET/10 AM PT for an Empowered #patientchat on Twitter (@power4patients) with our friends @intakeme[/lead]
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