Posts

How To Cope With Cancer-Related Fatigue

We all know what it’s like to feel tired – physically, mentally and emotionally, but usually after some relaxation and a good night’s sleep, we are ready to take on the world again. When you have cancer, though, rest often isn’t enough. Fatigue caused by cancer and its treatments takes a toll on your stamina along with the emotional effects of cancer. Being diagnosed with cancer is highly stressful and we know that stress affects your state of mind, your sleep, and your energy levels too. Even after adequate sleep or rest, you still feel tired and unable to do the normal, everyday activities you did before with ease. You experience a persistent, whole-body exhaustion. You may find it hard to concentrate or to engage in your usual activities.

What is cancer-related fatigue?

Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is increasingly recognised as one of the most common and distressing side effects of cancer and its treatments. It has a negative impact on work, social relationships, mood, and daily activities and causes significant impairment in overall quality of life.  It has been estimated that from one quarter to nearly all cancer patients experience fatigue during and after treatment. Although CRF generally improves after therapy is completed, some level of fatigue may persist for months or even years following treatment.  Studies of long-term breast cancer survivors suggest that approximately one-quarter to one-third experience persistent fatigue for up to 10 years after cancer diagnosis.

Some symptoms of cancer-related fatigue, according to the American Cancer Society are:

  • A constant feeling of tiredness that doesn’t ever go away or get better
  • Being more tired than usual before, during, or after activities
  • Feeling too tired to perform normal routine tasks
  • Feeling general weakness or lethargy
  • Lacking energy
  • Being tired even after a good night’s sleep
  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Inability to remember
  • Being sad, irritable or depressed
  • Easily frustrated or angered
  • Trouble sleeping/insomnia
  • Difficulty moving arms or legs

What medical help is available for cancer-related fatigue?

A lot of cancer patients do not report fatigue to their doctors because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done to alleviate the debilitating effects of CRF.  If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression and profoundly diminish your quality of life, so it’s important that you speak to your doctor if fatigue is an issue for you.

Before you can address CRF specifically, your doctor needs to determine if there are any underlying medical issues which may be contributing to your fatigue.  For example, if you are anaemic, you may need to take nutritional supplements like iron. Sometimes fatigue is confused with depression. It’s important, therefore, to be evaluated to distinguish between the two. You may experience one or the other, or both at once. But they are not the same. You may need treatment for depression before you can adequately deal with your fatigue.

6 Everyday Strategies To Cope With CRF

 

Making some adjustments to your everyday routines can also help you cope with CRF. Here are 6 ways to do this.

1. Make deposits in your ‘energy bank’

Don’t expect to be able to do what you could do before cancer. Know your limits and don’t expect too much of yourself. You may find it helpful to think of your energy reserves as your ‘energy bank’. Whenever you do an activity you make a withdrawal. And when you rest you make a deposit. It’s important to balance withdrawals with deposits. If you keep doing too much whenever you feel like you have energy, you’ll run out completely and not have any reserves left for the things that are important.

2. Plan your day

Planning is key when you have fatigue.  Write a ‘To Do’ list each evening so you can prioritize the things you need to do the next day.  By prioritizing in this way, you can use your energy on the activities most important to you. Spread your activities throughout the day during times when you feel best and take rest breaks in between activities.

3. Keep a fatigue diary

Keeping a fatigue diary – where you score your fatigue each day on a scale from 1 to 10, and record your activities – can help you think about patterns in your energy levels throughout the day.    This can make it easier to plan your activities for the times when you have more energy.

4. Do some regular light exercise

Although exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing, if you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to experience fatigue. In fact, a new study found that exercise and psychological interventions may be powerful tools in combatting cancer-related fatigue. Research has shown that there are many benefits to exercise. Not only does it help reduce the symptoms of fatigue, exercise encourages your body to release endorphins – often called ‘feel good hormones’. When released, endorphins can lift your mood and sense of well-being.

5. Eat healthily

When we are exhausted, we tend to gravitate towards processed, junk food which depletes our energy reserves further.  Follow a well-balanced diet (high in protein and carbohydrates, low in sugar) and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

6. Adjust your work schedule

Talk to your employer about making adjustments to your work schedule. Discuss the possibility of flexible working hours, reduced working hours or working from home.  Ask colleagues to help you with some of your work.  Talk to your occupational health adviser if you have one. They have a duty to support you doing your job and help you with any health problems that may affect your work.

Though fatigue is a common symptom when you have cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce or cope with it. There’s no one way to diagnose or treat cancer-related fatigue. Try some or all of these coping tips until you find what works for you.

Patient Advocacy: Ten Tactics for Mastering Social Media Success

Social media extends beyond the world of Facebook and Twitter. It encompasses blogs and other newer social platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest. If you want to raise awareness of your cause, amplify your patient advocacy activities, and create change where it’s needed most, social media is an important channel to share your message with the world.

Here are ten tactics you can use to master social media, make your cause better known, and grow your online influence.

1. Define Your Purpose

The success of any strategy, whether it happens on or off line, starts with defining a clear purpose for your activities. Ask yourself what you want to achieve with social media and then set specific and actionable goals to achieve it. Goals are the forerunner to success. You need big-picture long-term goals and smaller weekly or monthly goals that allow you to stay on track. For a goal to become a reality it needs to be specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic, as well as time specific. These are often called SMART goals.

Let’s take as an example, a goal to grow your Twitter followers, the following are the steps you would take to make this goal SMART.

  • Specific. The more specific you can be in defining your goals, the easier it will be to clearly see what it is you are trying to achieve.
  • Measurable. Give your goal a number. For example you could state you want to double the number of your existing Twitter followers or grow your following by 10%.
  • Attainable. Is your goal attainable? Can you realistically double the number of your Twitter followers? Or should you aim for a smaller increase to start with?
  • Relevant. Does this goal support your organization’s (or your own personal) objectives, vision, or values?
  • Time Specific. Give your goal a deadline, for example, “I will double my Twitter follower numbers by 10% in three months.”

2. Perfect Your Social Profiles

As I’ve written here before, patient advocates who are looking to change hearts and minds should consider the image they present online. What will people’s first impression be of you when they encounter your online profile? What might make them decide to follow you?  Review each of your existing social profiles with the following questions in mind.

  1. Do you need to update your bio with new information? Is there a project you are currently working on? Or a campaign you are part of?  Add this information to your biographical details.
  2. Is it time to use a more professional picture to represent yourself online? Upload an image that is clear and easy to see, like a head and shoulders shot, or your organization’s logo. You also have an opportunity to personalize your profile on Facebook and Twitter by uploading a custom header image. Use this opportunity to bring more authenticity to your account, for example you might use a picture of yourself holding a sign with a hard-hitting message.

3. Focus on Being The Expert One Channel At A Time

Each year brings shiny new social media tools and new features for existing tools. It’s tempting to jump on board the latest social platform with the aim of being everywhere at once; but rather than spreading yourself too thinly, focus on mastering one or two platforms really well before moving on to the next one. Look back on the past six months and ask yourself what you were good at doing. What worked well for you? Then do more of the same. Aim to become known as the go-to expert on one channel before you move on to the next one.

4. Create Share-Worthy Content

If you want people to share your content, you need to give them something worth sharing. The New York Times did a fascinating study a few years ago on the psychology of social sharing. It revealed that people want to connect to other like-minded people and they want to support issues they care about. Above all they want to share content that will be useful for those others in their network. Create content that your audience will want to share because they believe it will be of value or interest to others. Don’t just add to the online chatter. Before you post something, stop and ask yourself would this pass the re-share test? Why would I want to click on this information? Would I want to share it with my friends/family?

5. Create More Visual Content

In an age when people’s attention span averages 8 seconds (that’s shorter than a goldfish!) visuals are memorable and effective because they help people process, understand, and retain more information more quickly. Furthermore, people connect more emotionally with images than text, and in an increasingly crowded digital landscape images can break through the online content clutter. The type of visual assets you can create include images, videos, infographics, quotes, and GIFs. There are many tools out there which help you create appealing images without any design skill. I’ve put together a list of free tools here which you may find useful.

6. Make It Easy For People To Share Your Content

By making it easy for visitors to your website or blog to share your content, you increase the likelihood that they will take this action. Make sure your social sharing buttons are clearly visible. This is the most obvious (though sometimes overlooked) way to encourage readers to share your content. Make it easy for readers to share your posts by incorporating share buttons for the main social media sites on your blog. By placing the buttons on the side or at the end of the article, people will be more inclined to share the article.  Use a tool like Click to Tweet which generates one-click tweet boxes or links that can be shared through your website, your blog, or via email, to increase social shares and highlight relevant quotes, stats, and key takeaways.

7. Leverage Hashtags

A hashtag (#) is a popular way of creating and monitoring a conversation on social media. While most often identified with Twitter, posts can also be tagged on Instagram, Pinterest, Google Plus, and Facebook. Don’t over-use hashtags on Twitter. Research shows that tweets with more than two hashtags actually see a drop in engagement. Check the Healthcare Hashtag Project for relevant healthcare hashtags.

8. Maintain a Consistent Content Creation and Promotion Schedule

Social media marketing is an ongoing commitment. You need to post consistently to stay in front of your audience’s eyes and keep growing. Set aside one day each month to map out upcoming events, holidays, and so on, which you would like to write or post about. Then use a simple excel spread sheet to create your content calendar. Do the same thing with another spread sheet for social media postings.

One key to maintaining a steady stream of quality content is to re-purpose what you already have. Check your blog’s analytics to see the most popular posts you’ve written. Can you expand on these to include new research or thinking? Perhaps the content can be turned into an infographic or a slide-deck. By re-purposing content you have already written, you can extend and breathe new life into your current and past content. Check out these ten creative ways to repurpose your content for more ideas.

9. Optimize Your Engagement

To optimize your social media engagement, it’s useful to know the best times to post your updates so they reach your audience when they are online. If you search for optimum posting times, you will find many guides online. They vary in their advice, so it’s always a good idea to do your own testing to determine the optimum times for your own particular audience. Once you’ve determined your optimum posting times, use a scheduling tool like Buffer or Hootsuite to schedule your updates to reach more people, more often.

10. Track and Measure Your Progress

How do you know if all the time you’re investing in social media marketing is paying off? You don’t know unless you put a system in place to measure and analyse your progress. Most of the main social platforms has their own analytics built in. Regularly tracking and measuring your activities on social media helps you see what is working (or not).

Using these ten tactics will help you focus on your goals more clearly, promote your key messages better, and measure your activities more effectively. Don’t expect all of these tactics to work right away. Social media is a strategy that will succeed long-term, rather than be a quick success. If you want to see real results, you must be prepared to commit to it long-term. Finally, remember the goal is not to be good at social media for its own sake; rather the goal is to be good at patient advocacy because of social media. Social media are powerful advocacy tools, but they are just tools. It’s within how you master those tools that the real power lies.

The Advocate’s Guide to Reporting Live from Conferences and Events

Reporting live from an event is a way of engaging your followers by sending updates about an event as it occurs. It allows you to expand the reach of in-person events to provide valuable insights to those who are unable to attend in person. I believe it is part of our role as advocates to make these learnings accessible to all and live-reporting is a powerful way to do this. Furthermore as attendees, the experience of live-tweeting can enhance our own personal learning.  It requires us to listen more carefully and focus more sharply on the key details of a talk so we can better summarize what the speakers are saying in 140 characters.

Quite often, multiple vibrant discussions happen on Twitter as questions or insights are shared from other conference attendees and from those listening in online, thereby creating a parallel virtual meeting. Similarly, if a meeting has parallel sessions, live-tweeting enables conference attendees to listen in on multiple talks simultaneously. This learning can be further consolidated with an archive of tweets on which to reflect back after the event.

Live reporting tools include live-streaming using Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and Periscope (Twitter’s live-streaming app).  You can also share posts to your Facebook page and share photos and video clips via Instagram and Snapchat during the event.  Because of its ability to give people who aren’t at an event a sense of what is unfolding as it happens, live-tweeting (sending real-time updates via Twitter) is a popular way to capture the immediacy and energy of an event.

Whether organizing an event, taking part in person, or tuning in online via live-streaming, the following guidelines will help you better prepare to report live from your next conference or event.

Before The Event: Get Organized

1.Create a Custom Hashtag

If you are organizing the event, create a custom hashtag (#) and let people know in advance what it will be. Keep the following tips in mind when choosing a hashtag.

  • Make it short. Remember people only have 140 characters to tweet with and you want to leave some room for re-tweets.
  • Make it intuitive and relatable to your event but not so generic that it’s confused with something else.
  • Make it easy to remember and type for delegates. Many will be tweeting from a smart phone or tablet.
  • Make sure it isn’t already in use. You don’t want to duplicate an existing hashtag which may result in two simultaneous but very different conversations colliding on Twitter. Do a Twitter search to find out.
  • Monitor your hashtag on a regular basis to see if someone else is using it for something unrelated.
  • Register your hashtag with Symplur’s Healthcare Hashtag Project. Doing so will also allow you to access analytics after the event.

2. Create Twitter Lists of Speakers and Attendees

Creating lists on Twitter of those who are speaking and attending the event is a super way to keep track of their tweets. These lists will help you prepare in advance by making sure you know the correct names, affiliations and Twitter handles of key speakers and attendees. It is also a useful way of finding other like-minded people attending the event whom you can network with.

3. Set up Saved Searches

Use a Twitter client tool to set up a saved search of the conference hashtag and @usernames. A tool like TweetDeck or HootSuite will allow you to have multiple columns open for different Twitter searches, helping you to keep track of several sessions at once.

4. Prepare Some Tweets in Advance

Things move fast on Twitter, particularly when you are live-tweeting.  Having some pre-prepared tweets on hand helps you stay organized and feel less overwhelmed in the moment.  This is particularly helpful if you are including photos or graphics with your tweets, since image editing can be time consuming.

During The Event

5. Tag Your Tweets with the Event Hashtag

Once you start tweeting live, make sure to use the designated event hashtag.  Let your followers know the meaning of the hashtag and why you are tweeting from the conference.  Provide a link to the event page so that people have some context to what you’re tweeting about. It is good practice to let your followers know in advance that you are live tweeting so they can mute the hashtag if they aren’t interested in those tweets.

If you are organizing the event, keep an eye on unofficial hashtags. Sometimes, people tweet using hashtags that make sense to them instead of using the official hashtag. This shouldn’t be an issue if you have chosen a simple, intuitive hashtag and promoted it in advance, but it is still a good idea to an eye out for rogue hashtags and direct the users to the official one.

6. Focus on Value

The objective of live-reporting is to provide value to others, so avoid tweeting sound-bites that won’t make sense to online listeners. Be selective about the quotes or insights you choose to tweet and only post high-quality photos and videos that your followers will find interesting. No one wants to see a blurry photo of a speaker or a slide.

Strive for originality and context and make it relatable to your Twitter followers.  Tweet links to websites, studies, or other information which will enhance understanding of the topic. It’s fine to highlight your own expertise, but don’t spam. Retweet attendees and speakers who represent your mission and core values. Search for questions being asked using the event hashtag which you can answer.

7. Don’t “Binge Tweet”

Be selective, share key points only and avoid flooding your timeline with tweets. Don’t mindlessly re-tweet what everyone else is already tweeting, unless you can add a unique perspective. When live-Tweeting, one Tweet every five minutes is a good rule of thumb.

8. Give Correct Attribution

Be sure to attribute quotes to the speaker who made them, by using quotation marks. Whenever you cite a speaker, add their Twitter handle and affiliation if known (this is where those pre-prepared Twitter lists come in useful). Separate your own comments/viewpoints from the speaker’s own words.

9. Encourage Engagement

Don’t tweet in a vacuum; engage with fellow live tweeters and contribute to a larger conversation. Involve online listeners by asking questions; e.g. “Speaker X says doctors need to be more empathetic – do you agree/what do you think about this?”

10. Be Social

Don’t restrict yourself to tweeting behind a screen; take the opportunity to network and meet new people face-to-face too. Live-tweeting is a great way to meet like-minded people, so use it to organize “tweetups” at coffee and lunch breaks during the event to further the connection.

After The Event

11. Archive Your Report

After the event has finished, you can still add value by using a tool like Storify and/or Twitter Moments to archive tweets.  You could also summarise the event in a follow-up blog, embedding selected tweets to illustrate your points.

Twitter Abbreviations:

# = hashtag

@ = a way to address a Twitter user

RT = retweet, share something already tweeted

MT=modified tweet, indicates you have modified an original tweet

HT = hat tip, acknowledge or thank a source

DM = direct message

CX = correction

Live reporting from conferences and events is an important part of our advocacy work. It expands the reach of information, research, and data beyond the physical limitations of a conference or event. It also offers an opportunity to highlight your own influence and expertise.

Encourage other advocates to join you in reporting live because the more multiplicity of voices we can bring to an event, the more we can amplify our voices and be heard. As with medicine, there is both an art and science to live reporting. Follow the tips outlined in this article to take your live reporting to the next level.

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?

Don’t Be An Egg Head! Ten Twitter Tips for Patient Advocates

Last month Twitter announced it is now possible to filter out accounts with the default (egg) profile image, so that they don’t appear in your notifications. While this change is part of the company’s efforts to deal with abuse on the platform, it is also a timely reminder to those Twitter users who still have accounts without a personal picture to add one.   It is still surprising to me the number of new (and not-so new) Twitter users who are tweeting from an account with no clearly identifiable name, bio, or profile picture.

Twitter is a powerful tool to help raise awareness of your cause, keep current with research, amplify your advocacy activities, and build collaborative relationships. A study published by researchers from Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon University, “Tweeting Is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions,”  analyzed how users assess Twitter credibility. The study found that users represented by the default Twitter icon, or a cartoon avatar, are perceived as significantly less credible than users with a personal photo.

Patient advocates who are looking to change hearts and minds should consider the image they present online. What will people’s first impression be of you? What might make them decide to follow you? What kind of content should you tweet to engage your followers?  Whether you are a Twitter newbie, or you have been on Twitter for a while, these ten tips will help you develop your professional identity on social media.

1. Perfect Your Profile

The first and most fundamental thing to understand about Twitter is that it is a conversation. Would you approach someone at an event and not introduce yourself first? Would you keep your face hidden from view while you hold a conversation? And yet this is precisely what some users do when they set up their Twitter accounts. Many Twitter users will not follow accounts without a profile picture on the assumption it is a fake account, and now with these new changes it will be easier than ever to weed out these accounts.

Let’s start with your avatar. An avatar is something used to represent you in an online environment and on Twitter it is the small thumbnail picture that appears alongside your tweets in the feed.  Since the thumbnail is so small (400 x 400 pixels), choose an image that is clear and easy to see, like a head and shoulders shot, or your organization’s logo.

You also have an opportunity to personalize your profile by uploading a custom header image, similar to a Facebook cover photo.  Use this opportunity to bring more authenticity to your account, for example you might use a picture of yourself holding a sign with a hard-hitting message.

2. Craft Your Bio

Trying to capture your passion and experience in Twitter’s 160 character limit for a bio is a challenge.  You won’t be able to express all you want to say, so think of this as a snapshot of who you are and what you do.  How will you describe yourself to pique people’s interest to learn more about your work?  Which of your accomplishments will you highlight? Is there a project you are currently working on? Or a campaign you are part of?  Use campaign hashtags, and link to other relevant Twitter accounts to highlight your online community.

Bonus Tip: When writing your professional bio, be brief but authentic, and make your core expertise and experience immediately clear.

3. Find People to Follow

Begin by following your organization’s Twitter account. Twitter will then auto-suggest people who also follow this account for you. Next draw up a list of organizations and groups related to your area of interest. Go to their website and click on the Twitter follow button if they have one. When reading blogs written by other patients check to see if they have included their Twitter profile.

Follow healthcare professionals, researchers and patient advocates who are tweeting about issues related to your illness. The easiest way to find conversations of interest is to click the native search facility at the top of your Twitter screen and enter your keyword or hashtag (words or phrases prefixed with a “#” sign).  You then have a further option of performing an Advanced Search. This allows you to narrow down your search using parameters such as specific keywords, language, people, location, and date range.

Bonus Tip: It’s a good idea to organize your followers into lists. You can create your own lists or subscribe to lists created by others. I use a tool called Listly to curate healthcare lists – you can view my epatient list here.

4. Engage Your Followers

The more people who follow you, the more you can amplify your content and increase your social shares.  As you attract followers to your account you will need to think about how you are going to keep them engaged over the long term.  How will you maintain trust and credibility and give people a compelling reason to keep following you? Take the time to acknowledge when a person follows you online or re-shares your content.  Keep your eyes open for those who retweet you often or share your blog.  Thank them sincerely for sharing your content. Show your followers you are interested in their tweets too by retweeting and favoriting their updates.

5. Share Interesting Content

If you want people to share your content, you need to give them something worth sharing. The New York Times did a fascinating study on the psychology of social sharing a few years ago. It showed that people want to connect to other like-minded people, they want to support issues they care about, and above all they want to share content that will be useful for those in their network. Create content that your audience will want to share because they believe it will be of value or interest to others. Don’t just add to the online chatter. Before you post something, stop and ask yourself would this pass the re-share test? Why would I want to click on this information? Would I want to share it with my friends/family?

6. Use Hashtags Wisely

A hashtag on Twitter is a very popular way of creating and monitoring a conversation around a particular topic and can be a great way to engage your followers. To create a hashtag, simply place # before a word.  Twitter’s own research into hashtags shows that there is significant advantage to using them. Individuals can see a marked increase in engagement simply by using hashtags. A word of warning though – when #you use #too #many #hashtags your #tweet looks like #spam. Don’t use more than 2 hashtags per tweet. Research shows that tweets with more than two hashtags actually see a drop in engagement.

7. Live Tweet

A great way to add value for your community is to live tweet from conferences and events. Twitter is fantastic for taking the content of conferences beyond the walls of a conference venue. You can follow along on Twitter using the conference hashtag and share your insights and key highlights with your followers who cannot be there.

Curate the tweets from the event using Storify – a tool which gathers social media updates and media from across the web to build a social story. You can also notify people that their tweets have been curated in the Storify – which is a great way to publicly recognise your followers and attract new followers.

Bonus Tip: If you’re new to Storify, check out my step-by-step guide to creating your first story.

8. Develop a Regular Posting Schedule

In order to stay in front of your audience’s eyes you need to post consistently. Create a social media calendar using a simple Excel spread sheet so you can map out in advance upcoming holidays and cause awareness days to tweet about. When you have created your calendar, you can use a Twitter scheduling tool, like HootSuite, Buffer or Tweetdeck to schedule your tweets in advance. The internet is global and if you want the spread of your content to reach further than your own backyard, you need to hit multiple time zones. Scheduling tweets allows you to reach followers when they are most likely to be online (even if you aren’t there at the same time) and allows you to maintain a regular and consistent online presence.

Bonus Tip: Follow this link to learn more about this tip and download a social media posting calendar.

9. Join a Twitter Chat

A Twitter Chat is a public Twitter conversation around one unique hashtag. This hashtag allows you to follow the discussion and participate in it. Twitter chats can be one-off events, but more usually are recurring weekly chats to regularly connect people. The chat will be hosted and the host will ask questions along the way to stimulate discussion and sharing of ideas. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project. In addition you will find past transcripts of chats on the website. This is also a useful resource to find Twitter users to follow.

Bonus Tip: It’s good Twitter etiquette to let your followers know your tweet volume is about to increase as you join the chat.

10. Have Fun!

If you’re new to Twitter you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed at all this advice. Remember you don’t have to do everything right away. Go slowly at first. Take one of these tips each week and put them into action.  Soon you’ll find you are becoming a Twitter pro, ready to teach others the tips and tricks you have perfected. Above all, have fun with Twitter. It’s a super place to network and learn, but it’s also a fun place to make new friends.

How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper

In a previous article, How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News, I recommended you should always try to read an original study (if cited) to evaluate the information presented. In this follow-on article, you will learn how to read a scientific research paper so that you can come to an informed opinion on the latest research in your field of interest.  Understanding research literature is an important skill for patient advocates, and as with any skill, it can be learned with practice and time.

Let’s start by looking at what exactly we mean by the term “scientific paper”. Scientific papers are written reports describing original research findings. They are published in peer reviewed journals, which means they have been refereed by at least two other experts (unpaid and anonymized) in the field of study in order to determine the article’s scientific validity.

You may also come across the following types of scientific papers in the course of your research.

•       Scientific review papers are also published in peer reviewed journals, but seek to synthesize and summarize the work of a particular sub-field, rather than report on new results.

•       Conference proceedings, which may be published in a journal, are referred to as the “Proceedings of Conference X”. They will sometimes go through peer review, but not always.

•       Editorials, commentaries and letters to the editor offer a review or critique of original articles. They are not peer-reviewed.

Most scientific journals follow the IMRD format, meaning its publications will usually consist of an Abstract followed by:

•       Introduction

•       Methods

•       Results

•       Discussion

 

Let’s look at each of these sections in turn.

(a) Introduction  

The Introduction should provide you with enough information to understand the article. It should establish the scientific significance of the study and demonstrate a relevant context for the current study.  The scope and objectives of the study should be clearly stated.

When reading the Introduction, ask yourself the following questions:

·       What specific problem does this research address?

·       Why is this study important?

(b) Methods

The Methods section outlines how the work was done to answer the study’s hypothesis. It should explain new methodology in detail and types of data recorded.

As you read this section, look for answers to the following questions:

  • What procedures were followed?
  • Are the treatments clearly described?
  • 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. Case studies (i.e. those based on single patients or single observations) are no longer regarded as scientific rigorous.
  • 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.

 (c) Results

The Results section presents the study’s findings.  It should follow a logical sequence to answer the study hypothesis.  Pay careful attention to any data sets shown in graphs, tables, and diagrams. Try to interpret the data first before reading the captions and details.  If you are unfamiliar with statistics, you will find a helpful glossary of terms hereClick here for an online guide to help you understand key concepts of statistics and how these concepts relate to the scientific method and research.

Consider the following questions:

  • Are the findings supported by persuasive evidence?
  • Is there an alternative way to interpret these findings?

(d) Discussion 

The Discussion places the study in the context of the broader field of research. It should explain how the research has moved the body of scientific knowledge forward and outline the next steps for further study.

Questions to ask:

•       Does the study have any limitations? Limitations are the 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.

  • How are the findings new or supportive of other work in the field?
  • What are some of the specific applications of the study’s findings?

The IMRD format provides you with a useful framework to read a scientific paper. You will need to read a paper several times to understand its findings. Consider your first reading of the study as a “big picture” reading.  Scan the Abstract for a summary of the study’s principal objectives, the methods it used and the principal conclusions. A well-written abstract should allow you to identify the basic content of an article to determine its relevance to you.  In describing how she determines the relevance of a study, research RN, Katy Hanlon, focuses on “key words and phrases first. Those that relate to the author/s base proposal as well as my own interests”.  Medical writer, Nora Cutcliffe, also scans upfront “to gauge power and relevance of clinical trial data”. She looks for “study enrollment (n), country and year”. It’s important to note the publication date to determine if this article contains the latest findings or if there is more up-to-date research available. Cutcliffe also advises you should “note author affiliations and study sponsors”.  Here you are looking out for any potential bias or vested interest in a particular outcome.  Check the Acknowledgments section to see if the author(s) declare any financial interests in the research which might bias their findings. Finally, check if the article is published in a credible journal.  You will find reputable biomedical journals indexed by Pubmed and Web of Science.

Next, circle or take note of any scientific terms or keywords you don’t understand and look up their meaning before your second reading. Scan the References section – you may even want to read an article listed here first to help you better understand the current study.

With the second reading you are going to deepen your comprehension of the study. You’ll want to highlight key points, consult the references, and take notes as you read.  According to the scientific publisher, Elsevier, “reading a scientific paper should not be done in a linear way (from beginning to end); instead, it should be done strategically and with a critical mindset, questioning your understanding and the findings.”  Scientist, Dr Jennifer Raff, agrees. “When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract”, she writes in How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists. “But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last”. Raff explains she does this “because abstracts contain a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I’m concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors’ interpretation of the results”.

When you have read the article through several times, try to distill it down to its scientific essence, using your own words. Write down the key points you have gleaned from your reading such as the purpose of the study, main findings and conclusions. You might find it helpful to develop a template for recording notes, or adapt the template below for use. You will then have a useful resource to find the correct reference and to cross reference when you want to consult an article in the future.

In the example below I have taken an article published in 2015, as an example. You can read the paper Twitter Social Media is an Effective Tool for Breast Cancer Patient Education and Support: Patient-Reported Outcomes by Survey on PubMed.

Template for Taking Notes on Research Articles

 

 

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Presentation Tips for Patient Advocates: Developing Effective Speaking Skills

As a patient advocate you may be invited to speak in public about your cause, and while some of you will relish this opportunity, many others will find it daunting. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 74% of people suffer from speech anxiety. Surveys show that the fear of public speaking ranks as one of the most common phobias among humans. There’s even a name for it – glossophobia – the fear of public speaking. Whether you are daunted or excited by the prospect of speaking in public it pays to have a plan in place to communicate effectively.  For a presentation to impact an audience and be memorable, you must structure the content, design the slides, and use public speaking techniques effectively. Next time you are asked to deliver a presentation, follow this step-by-step guide designed to help you become a more confident, prepared, and persuasive speaker.

STEP ONE: PREPARE YOUR TALK

Good presentation skills begin with thorough preparation. Here are seven tips to help you prepare for your next talk.

1. Decide what you want to say. What is the purpose of this talk? What do you want your audience to know, feel, or do after they have heard you speak? Your presentation should have a purpose, something that the audience walks away eager to do. Write down your core message in one or two clear sentences. Include a call-to-action (CTA) detailing exactly what should happen next. If you find that you have several messages you would like to deliver, challenge yourself to focus and simplify your message. Once you have a clear focus for your talk, you can then group your other ideas around it.

2. Know your audience. Who will be coming to your talk? Why are they coming to listen to you? What do they already know about the topic you will be speaking on? Find out as much as you can about your audience so you can better speak to their interests and in the language they are most familiar with.

3. Do your research. Do you want to present facts and figures in your talk? Are there any research studies you could incorporate to make your core message stronger? Use online tools like Symplur, the Journal of Internet Research (JMIR), and Google Scholar to help you with your research.

4. Structure your presentation. Now it’s time to put your key messages and research points together in a structured way. Having a structure is a helpful roadmap to keep you on track and to allow the audience to follow along with your points. Start with astrong opening, for instance, share some compelling statistics, outline a current problem, or share a memorable anecdote. If you feel comfortable sharing a personal story, this is one of the most effective ways to get your audience to pay attention. Stories leave a lasting impression on listeners. Patient advocate Martine Walmsley points to the importance of sharing your patient story because the story “behind the diagnosis is a side researchers and clinicians don’t usually see. Don’t assume they already know those details.” (Read Why Your Patient Story Matters for more tips on how to tell your patient story). Healthcare consumer representative and patient experience consultant Liat Watson advises patients to speak from the heart. “People want to connect with you and your story”, she says, “Share like you are sitting around the kitchen table”.

Next, organize your main points into an order that will make sense to your listeners. Reflect on your key points and how you might emphasise them.  Finally, determine the take-home lesson (CTA) you want to close with and how you will convey this to your audience. Your CTA should transmit a sense of urgency. Why is it important they hear your message and act now?  What will happen if they don’t act?

5. Add visual interest. If you decide to use slides in your presentation aim to create highly-visual slides with minimal text. Never cram information onto your slides. Instead, present one idea per slide so the audience can process each point fully before being presented with another idea. By presenting only one point at a time the information is easier to understand, and the audience is less likely to experience information overload.  Avoid excessive use of bullet points, not only do they contribute to the phenomenon known as Death by PowerPoint, but they are also proven to be an ineffective method of communication for presentations. Take care when choosing fonts for your presentation– how you present your text is an important factor in making your slides clear and compelling.  Type Genius is a useful tool to help you find the perfect font type and which fonts complement each other.

For a change from the usual PowerPoint presentation, consider using an alternative such as Keynote (for Mac) Prezi or Haiku Deck. Whichever tool you decide on, your slides should be visually engaging.  Make good use of diagrams and charts and find some compelling images to hold your audience’s attention. When choosing an image make sure it is high resolution so that it will still look pleasing to the eye when it is blown up to full-screen proportions. Don’t be tempted to use an image you have sourced from a Google search unless the image is licensed “Creative Commons”. Instead look for images on sites such as Foter, Pixabay, and Unsplash, all of which gives you access to a bank of high resolution free-to-use photos. As a general rule of thumb, stick to one image per slide – anything more than that simply looks too cluttered.  If you want to add text to a background image, choose a background with plenty of “whitespace” which will allow the text to be read clearly. If your image is lacking whitespace, try applying a blur effect or a gradient fill when you want to add text to your background.

6. Stand and deliver.  Rehearse out loud using whatever slides, notes, or props you plan to use during your talk. Don’t simply practise by sitting at your desk clicking through your slide-deck; stand and deliver your talk as if you are doing it in front of an audience. Work on your voice intonation and emphasis, flow and transitions, and practise controlling filler words, like “ems” and “ahs” (Toastmasters Internationalpoints out too many fillers can distract your audience). Crohn’s disease patient, Nigel Horwood, who has spoken to a large audience of nurses at Kings College Hospital, London, UK, recommends reading your talk out loud when you are practising. “I find that simply reading through what I have written doesn’t pick up the likes of over used words or even ones that are missing. Much better to hear it being read,” he has written in his blog Wrestling the Octopus.

Modulate your speaking voice to a lower pitch (if you can do so without sounding unnatural); the deeper the pitch of your voice, the more persuasive
and confident you sound. In “The 5 P’s of Powerful Speaking for a Memorable Speech”, professional speaker Pam Warren points out that “in public speaking clarity and tone are far more important than volume in that they imply authority, a certain gravitas and above all, confidence.” When speaking on certain points you may want to stress their importance, so practise the power of the pause – a slight pause before you’re about to say something important.  Take a printed copy of your text and make marks, such as a forward slash (/) or use color coding in your paragraphs to remind you to pause at key points in your talk.

The most important thing you should practise is the opening of your talk. Focus on conveying a strong, confident start which will set the stage for everything that follows.  Time your presentation using a stopwatch, or one of the many free countdown timers available online. After practicing a few times on your own, ask a friend to listen to you. If you don’t want to do this, video or audio record your presentation so you can play it back and see how you might improve on delivery.

7. Final preparations. Make sure you have a good night’s sleep the night before your talk and have your clothes freshly pressed and ready on hangars. Back up your presentation to a flash drive (or the cloud), pack a plentiful supply of business cards and handouts (if you are using them). Health consumer advocate Melissa Cadzow recommends making it easy for people to follow up with you after your talk, by having a dedicated business card for your patient advocacy work. She also recommends including information on your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles and providing an email address in your presentation slides.

 

STEP TWO: DELIVER YOUR TALK

It’s the day of your big presentation. Plan to arrive early so you can familiarise yourself with the room, meet the technical team, check your slides are working correctly, and practice using the microphone.

When you take to the stage, resist the urge to begin speaking straight away. Take a few moments to ground yourself – set your feet slightly apart, toes pointing towards the centre back of the room (this gives you balance and is the most secure and comfortable way to stand when talking).  Pull your shoulders back and down – this allows your chest to expand, so you have more breath when you begin to speak.  Make eye contact and smile at your audience which will help to relax you if you are feeling nervous.
When you begin to speak, do so slowly and clearly to give your audience time to absorb your words. Remember to take full breaths between sentences.

Dealing with presentation nerves: Feeling anxious or being nervous before a big presentation is normal. If you feel nervous, focus on the fact that your audience wants you to succeed. They are on your side. You were chosen to speak and you are the expert they have come to hear. There’s no need to tell them that you are feeling nervous – people probably won’t even notice if you don’t mention it.  Whenever you feel those first signs of nerves such as a racing heart, sweaty palms and shallow breathing, bring awareness to the physical sensations, take some deep breaths and anchor yourself by touching something physical, such as a table or the slide advancer, or push your weight into your toes and feet.  It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous, but try to focus your attention away from your nervousness and concentrate instead on what you want to say to your audience. Recognize that nerves are a signal that this is something that matters to you. Turn your nerves into enthusiasm and passion for your topic.

 

STEP THREE: AFTER YOUR TALK

Spend time after the presentation to reflect on how things went. Ask yourself (or others) what you thought went well and what could have been better? Take some notes on which techniques worked to help calm your nerves, which stories resonated with the audience, and how you answered any questions in the Q&A.  The purpose of this exercise is to become a better presenter the next time you are asked to give a talk, by putting the lessons you learn each time into practice. Take every opportunity you can to practise speaking in public. Not only is it an important way to get your message out into the world, but mastering the art of public speaking is a wonderful way to boost your personal and professional confidence.


Editor’s Note: For another creative presentation design tool, please check out Canva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use this common medical mnemonic to guide you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing About Us Without Us: Patient Involvement in Research

Until recently, patient participation in research was limited to their involvement as subjects enrolled in research studies, but there is a shift occurring as funding bodies increasingly look for evidence of patient and public involvement (PPI) in research proposals. The rationale for this is increasing evidence that PPI in the provision of healthcare leads to improved outcomes and better quality of care.

Assumptions are made every day about patients; assumptions which may lead to a failure to deliver optimum care. When these assumptions extend to research, quite often there is a mismatch between the questions that patients want answers to and the ones that researchers are investigating. 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. PPI recognizes that patients bring a unique perspective and experience to the decision-making process in research. It is paternalistic and patronizing to rely on speculation about patient experience. By considering the actual experience of patients, researchers can make more informed research decisions. Involving patients is an important step in ensuring that the real life experiences of patients are considered when it comes to setting research priorities. This in turn will increase the relevance of research to patients and improve research quality and outcomes.

As an advocate you may be asked to become involved in a research project, so it is important to have a clear understanding of what PPI is – and what it isn’t. PPI is not about being recruited as a participant in a clinical trial or other research project, donating sample material for research, answering questionnaires or providing opinions. PPI describes a variety of ways that researchers engage with people for whom their research holds relevance. It spans a spectrum of involvement which may include any of the following:

  • Being involved in defining the research question
  • Being a co-applicant in a research proposal
  • Working with funders to review patient-focused section of applications
  • Being an active member of a steering group for a research study
  • Providing your input into a study’s conception and design
  • Contributing to/proofing of documentation
  • Assisting in the implementation and dissemination of research outcomes
  • Improving access to patients via peer networks and accessing difficult-to-reach patients and groups

Effective PPI transforms the traditional research hierarchy in which studies are done to, on, or for participants into a partnership model in which research is carried out with or by patients.  PPI should always involve meaningful patient participation and avoid tokenism. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) describes PPI as fostering a climate in which researchers, health care providers, decision-makers and policy-makers understand the value of patient involvement and patients see the value of these interactions. Underpinning this framework are the following guiding principles for integrating patient engagement into research:

  • Inclusiveness:Patient engagement in research integrates a diversity of patient perspectives and research is reflective of their contribution.
  • Support:Adequate support and flexibility are provided to patient participants to ensure that they can contribute fully to discussions and decisions. This implies creating safe environments that promote honest interactions, cultural competence, training, and education. Support also implies financial compensation for their involvement.
  • Mutual Respect:Researchers, practitioners and patients acknowledge and value each other’s expertise and experiential knowledge.
  • Co-Build:Patients, researchers and practitioners work together from the beginning to identify problems and gaps, set priorities for research and work together to produce and implement solutions.

Derek Stewart, a patient advocate and Associate Director for Patient and Public Involvement at NIHR Clinical Research Network, sees a growing momentum of actively involving patients and public in research gathering pace worldwide. “It is really pleasing to hear researchers saying how valuable it has been to involve patients and the public in their work”, he says. “It has equally improved the quality of the research and enriched their own thinking and understanding.”

Earlier this year, PCORnet, the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network, announced its first demonstration study which reflects PCORnet’s aims of patient engagement and open science. ADAPTABLE (Aspirin Dosing: A Patient-centric Trial Assessing Benefits and Long-Term Effectiveness) will compare the effect of two different aspirin doses given to prevent heart attacks and strokes in high-risk patients with a history of heart disease. Seeking input at every critical step, from consent design and protocol development, through dissemination of final study results, the project represents a new research paradigm. Unprecedented in the design of clinical trials, the final consent form and protocol were shaped with input from patients, local institutional review boards, physicians, and study coordinators.

Another noteworthy example of PPI can be found in the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project a direct-to-patients initiative launched at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard last October. Corrie Painter, an angiosarcoma patient and Associate Director of Operations and Scientific Outreach at Broad Institute, explains that “the project seeks to greatly accelerate the pace of biomedical research by empowering patients to directly contribute to research and was built in lock step from design to consent language with dozens of patients.”

To what extent you may wish to be involved in PPI will depend on several factors. Do you have professional experience (e.g. project management, clinical experience, etc.) which would be useful? Are you happy to work as part of a team? Or would you prefer to work on your own? You should also take into consideration your other work or family commitments. For instance will you need to take time off work to attend meetings? Consider also at what point you are in your own health journey. Will participation in research place an added burden on your treatment or recovery? In making the decision to become involved in research, you should always balance your own health needs with the desire to be supportive of research and the research process.


Useful links

PCORI www.pcori.org

PCORnet www.pcornet.org

Metastatic Breast Cancer Project www.mbcproject.org

#WhyWeDoResearch www.whywedoresearch.weebly.com

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Blogging About Your Illness

In his book, The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Calgary, writes that when we are ill we are wounded not just in body, but in voice. He describes how illness can radically alter how a person relates to the world and how we need to find a way to restore our fractured identity. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer over a decade ago, writing a blog, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, helped me express myself, reconnect to a new sense of self, and find my voice again.

Throughout her life, the writer Virginia Woolf maintained that her work was incomplete until it was shared with readers. And I think this is also true of being part of a blogging community. When we share our writing, someone else has heard our voice. Someone else cares and understands. So often, illness causes us to feel isolated and cut off from others. Blogging is a way for us to find a shared sense of connection and community.

the-benefits-and-pitfalls-of-blogging-about-your-illnessYet sharing our story online is not without its pitfalls; the most obvious of which is a loss of privacy. You should consider how revealing your medical history online might have an impact on your family and professional circumstances. How will your employer, co-workers, or other family members view you? Do you risk being over-identified with your illness? For me, disclosure of my own story has evolved from initial anonymity to a point where I now choose to share more openly. However, the degree to which I share information still depends on the space where I share it and the degree of trust I have with the people I share with (for instance I consider my blog a safe space to tell my story, but I am more cautious on Twitter). But what happens if that safe space is violated and our expectations of trust are shattered? When our words are taken out of context or used for a purpose we didn’t intend? Is information shared publicly implicitly available to everyone just because it is in the public domain? What are the ethics of research that includes collecting and analyzing patient stories or observing online behaviour without individuals knowing they are being included in research? In an age when technology has outpaced the ethical underpinnings of research and the culture surrounding privacy has changed profoundly, these are questions we need to find answers to.

Although we understand that what we share online is in the public domain, we nevertheless trust each other to maintain a collective sense of privacy, which includes not having our words reproduced without our knowledge or taken out of context. The issue of maintaining privacy in the public domain was brought into sharp focus two years ago when blogger Lisa Adams became the subject of an online debate. Adams, who blogged and tweeted about her experience of living with end-stage cancer, came to the attention of two journalists who strongly criticised what they called “Adams dying out loud.” Their opinions ignited a firestorm of debate about the public disclosure of illness, and the sharing of personal choices surrounding treatment and death and dying.

Illness makes us vulnerable and learning to navigate the digital landscape while also managing our vulnerability is a skill that we need to master if we are to protect ourselves online. Think carefully about what the process of online disclosure entails. Weigh up what you expect to gain from it and what implications sharing this information might have on your career or family life. If you are a parent or carer who writes about a patient, do you have their permission to share this information? In the case of writing about a child, what future effect might this have on one who cannot give consent or understand the significance of their story being shared so widely?

People have always gathered together to share what they know about health and illness, hoping to help and learn from others. What’s new is that we now have the ability to expand the reach of our conversations at internet speed and at internet scale. What happens in real life happens on line, but faster. This has many benefits, but it also means there is a higher potential for unintended consequences when we have less control over who sees our stories. It’s a good idea to periodically review the privacy settings on your social media accounts to decide if you are comfortable with the level of control you have over the information you share. Ask yourself, if your intended audience were sitting in front of you now, how comfortable would you feel sharing this information? How do you think you’ll feel after sharing it? Are you ready for feedback (positive or negative)? Remember sharing your story online doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Go slowly at the beginning, allow trust to build over time, and share only when you feel ready to do so.

Above all, be courageous in sharing your story. I am filled with gratitude for those who bravely blazed the trail in opening the discussion and decreasing the isolation connected with serious illness. I continue to be in awe of the connections and communities forged in the digital space and I look forward to seeing how this will evolve over time.

 

 

Seven Steps to a Successful Digital Advocacy Strategy

MEO SeptDigital advocacy concerns the ways in which you engage your audience online and inspire them to take action around your cause. Using digital tools and applications can amplify your issue, while giving you new opportunities to listen and engage with supporters, and monitor your progress.

Creating a digital strategy will help you focus on your goals more clearly, choose the right digital tools, promote key messages, and measure outcomes more effectively. Ultimately, the right strategy gives you the best chance of using digital channels (like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) to reach the right audiences with the right messages at the right times to advance your advocacy.

Step One: Set Your Communication Goals

The first step to any advocacy strategy is to establish clear objectives and goals that you hope to achieve. What are you trying to accomplish? For example, you might want to increase public understanding of the issues you advocate for, mobilize supporters to take action, or raise funds to support your cause. You will need to set SMART goals, which are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timebound

Specific – define your goals as clearly as possible.

Measurable – put figures on what you want to achieve e.g. increase visits to the website by 40%; gain 100 new Twitter followers or Facebook Likes.

Attainable – make your goal attainable in terms of the resources and capabilities you have.

Realistic – to be realistic, a goal must represent an objective toward which you are both willing and able to work.

Timebound – your goal should be grounded within a time frame.

Step Two: Define Your Target Audience

Who does your message need to reach? Obviously, you want to reach as many people as possible, but by choosing which audience to prioritize in your digital communications you will improve your reach, enhance relevance and put your resources to the best possible use. Find answers to basic demographic questions about your audience, what issues they are concerned with, alongside which online communities inform, inspire, or influence them. You can then tailor your content more specifically to match your audience.

Step Three: Choose the Right Social Channels

Once you’ve identified your target audience, map this information to social media behavior to help determine which social channels to concentrate on. Publically available reports, like Pew Research Center The Demographics of Social Media Users, can help you with this step. Social media are dynamic and constantly changing. When you develop your digital advocacy strategy, be prepared to be flexible. As new networks emerge you might want to add them to your strategy, but it’s important to always relate this back to your goals and your audience to ensure it fits your plan.

Step Four: Create Compelling Content

What is the key message(s) you need to convey to your target audience? How will you communicate it? Sharing the stories of
real people affected by your cause will be the most powerful and compelling content you can create. Share this content via blogs, videos, podcasts, email, etc. Bear in mind the content that works best on the platforms you have chosen. The continuing growth of visual platforms, such as Pinterest, Snapchat and Instagram mean that incorporating visual content into your digital strategy is important. Whichever type of content you create include a clear call-to-action. Make it clear and unambiguous what the next step is after reading or viewing your content; for instance, sign a petition, share on Twitter and Facebook, or donate to your cause.

Step Five: Implementation

Time is probably the biggest challenge in implementing your strategy. To achieve results and credibility you have to be prepared to commit time regularly to producing and promoting content and engaging with your audience. Decide on how much time you can realistically devote to implementation. Do you have time to write regularly for a blog? Would it be better to make short videos instead? Create an editorial calendar and list the dates and times you intend to post blogs, Facebook posts, Twitter updates, etc. Use a scheduling tool, like HootSuite or Buffer, to schedule you social media updates in advance. There are numerous tools and applications, many of them free, which can help you spend your time more efficiently and productively on social media.

Step Six: Monitor Social Media

It’s important to monitor social media on a regular basis to keep on top of what people are saying about you, your organization, campaign, or issue. It also gives you an opportunity to find relevant online discussions related to your cause, allows you to adjust your strategy in real time and guides you to key online influencers and opinion leaders who can help amplify your message. Setting up a simple Google Alert (email updates of the latest relevant Google results based on your queries) with relevant keywords is a good place to start. Use a tool like Hashtracking to monitor a particular hashtag, related hashtags, and the top influencers of that hashtag.

Step Seven: Measure and Evaluate

The final step is to measure and evaluate your progress, adjusting your strategy if necessary. Some key metrics to track are the number of followers you attract and retain, which social media channels drive the most traffic to your website, the number of comments you get, and how many times your updates have been shared. Google Analytics will provide you with detailed analytics to measure your website performance. Each of the main social platforms also has their own analytics built in. Other useful tools include:

  • TweetReach measures the reach and exposure data for your tweets
  • SumAll measures your Twitter follower growth, mentions, and engagement
  • Klout measures your online social influence via a “Klout Score”, which is a numerical value between 1 and 100.
  • Spredfast measures data gathered from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, to show how many people you’ve reached and whether or not your target audience is engaging with you.

Final Thoughts

Digital advocacy helps amplify advocacy efforts by potentially reaching more people, in more places, faster than ever before. It works best when it is aligned with your existing offline tactics. Think about how you can integrate your everyday advocacy activities with your digital strategy to maximize impact. Don’t expect digital advocacy to work right away. It is a strategy that will succeed long-term, rather than be a quick success. If you want to see real results, you must be prepared to commit to it long-term. Finally, keep in mind that social media are constantly changing and evolving, and you will need to keep evaluating your strategy to ensure you are maximizing your opportunities to engage meaningfully with your supporters.

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.

A Person Centered Approach To The Care Of Chronic Illness

The World Health Organization has called chronic conditions ‘the health care challenge of this century’. According to the latest figures released by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention about half of all adults have one or more chronic health conditions; and one of four adults have two or more chronic health conditions. Long-term diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are the leading cause of mortality worldwide and are estimated to be the leading cause of disability by 2020. A landmark paper, published on 9 July 2016 in Nature Reviews, reports the prevalence of global diabetes has been seriously underestimated by at least 25 per cent.

These figures are alarming, but what is equally alarming is that despite the prevalence and seriousness of the situation, our medical system is not structured to adequately respond to chronic illness. Our current health systems are designed to prevent, diagnose and treat acute medical conditions. The problem is not that people with chronic diseases do not receive care; rather, the acute care model ignores the fundamentally different approach that is needed to care for people with chronic conditions. Furthermore, this model leaves little room for the psycho-social dimensions of chronic illness; it addresses parts of diseases or small sub-parts of the body, but it does not address the person in a holistic way.

How can we begin to address this disconnect in a healthcare system which cares for pieces of people, rather than the whole person?

I believe the answer lies in adopting a person-centered approach to the care of the patient (while you may find the term patient-centered care is more widely-used, I prefer to use the more all-encompassing person-centered care as it focusses on the whole person). Describing the person-centered care approach, Dr Ronald Epstein, MD and Dr Richard Street, PhD characterize it as one in which “patients are known as persons in the context of their own social worlds, listened to, informed, respected, and involved in their care.”

Providing care that is respectful of and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, and values, and ensuring that patient values guide all clinical decisions, was recognised as a dimension of high-quality health care in the 2001 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report Crossing The Quality Chasm; An New Health System for The 21st Century as one of six quality aims for improving care. The IOM report drew on research conducted in 1993 by the Picker Institute in conjunction with the Harvard School of Medicine 1 which identified eight dimensions of patient-centered care.

These eight principles provide a roadmap for a person-centered approach to the care of chronic illness.

1. Respect for patients values, preferences and expressed needs

A fundamental tenet of person-centered care concerns putting people and their families at the center of clinical decisions. Each patient brings his/her own unique preferences, concerns and expectations to a clinical encounter and these values should be integrated into decisions if they are to serve the patient. Patients have a right to be part of the decision making process. This is best achieved through the model of shared decision making, the conversation that happens between a patient and their health professional to reach a healthcare choice together. At the very heart of shared decision making is the recognition that healthcare providers and patients bring different but equally important forms of expertise to the decision-making process. Patients and their families will bring their experience of living with a disease, their social circumstances and preferences. This is particularly relevant in chronic health conditions where the patient may have many years of experience of their symptoms and responses to treatments.

2. Co-ordination and integration of care

Research shows that patients highly value coordination of their care, seeing it as an important component of overall quality, especially when they have chronic health problems and complex needs. The reality however, is a patient with a chronic condition often receives care from multiple healthcare providers who may work independently from each other. This fragmented system affects the follow-through and co-ordination of care patients receive.

3. Addressing patients’ information, communication and education needs

Patients differ in their views about how much information they want. In some cases, patients want a lot of information and in other cases patients may delegate decision making entirely to healthcare professionals. The goal of patient-centeredness, according to the IOM report, is to customize information to the specific needs of each individual; that is, to modify the care to respond to the person, not the person to the care. Information needs to be much more easily available and understandable and a concerted effort made to strengthen health literacy for all patients.

4. Physical comfort

Attention to physical comfort implies timely, tailored and expert management of symptoms such as pain or other discomfort. Person-centered pain management takes into account not just the physical aspect of pain, but also the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of health and disease.

5. Emotional support and alleviation of fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety associated with illness can be as debilitating as the physical effects. As defined by the Institute of Medicine, patient-centered care attends to the anxiety that accompanies all injury and illness, whether due to uncertainty, fear of pain, disability or disfigurement, loneliness, financial impact, or the effect of illness on one’s family. Chronic illness affects every aspect of our lives and patients face a range of stressors from medical management of our illness, to dealing with changes in family life, work life or student life. The psychological effects of chronic illness can be profound. Individuals with chronic illness are more likely to be depressed, especially those who experience greater levels of pain and disability. In a paper published in the Western Journal of Medicine authors Jane Turner and Brian Kelly examined the emotional dimensions of chronic disease. They concluded that:

  • The emotional dimensions of chronic conditions are often overlooked when medical care is considered
  • Doctors may be well equipped for the biomedical aspects of care but not for the challenges of understanding the psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of illness and health
  • Clinicians can play an important part in helping their patients to maintain healthy coping skills

6. Involvement of family and friends

The sixth dimension of patient-centered care recognises the key role of families and friends in supporting and caring for a chronically ill person. It focuses on accommodating family and friends on whom patients may rely, involving them as appropriate in decision making, supporting them as caregivers, making them welcome and comfortable in the care delivery setting, and recognizing their needs and contributions.

7. Continuity and transition

Every episode of care involves various individuals and oftentimes multiple transfers between different health care settings. Poor communication during transitions leads to increased rates in hospital readmissions, medical errors, and poor health outcomes. Most patients and family caregivers are not encouraged to play an active role when a transition in their care occurs, even though they are often the only constants in the transition.

8. Access to care

Patients need to know they can access care when it is needed. In interviews conducted by Picker, patients indicated the following areas were of importance:

  • Access to the location of hospitals, clinics and physician offices
  • Availability of transportation
  • Ease of scheduling appointments
  • Availability of appointments when needed
  • Accessibility to specialists or specialty services when a referral is made
  • Clear instructions provided on when and how to get referrals.

Ideally patients should have access to the right service at the right place at the right time. This may take place outside the traditional healthcare setting, as Meredith Dezutter, who applies human-centered design to improve the lives of patients, caregivers and providers through her work at Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation, points to: “It may mean making medical knowledge more accessible and supporting local care decisions, offering online support or video appointments or even connecting the patient with resources in his or her community.”

For too long, patients have been grouped into a single homogenized category, and treatment approaches to care generalized. This ignores the reality of chronic illness which presents in different ways. Treatment of chronic conditions requires an individualized, multifaceted approach. Care is enhanced when there is sensitivity for the context of the illness experience. Person-centered care is a method of care that treats the patient as a person within the context of their lives, family and community support, mental and emotional state, beliefs and preferences. It is based on good communication and a partnership approach between clinician and patient with the aim of improving patient self-management, care outcomes and satisfaction. PhD student and health researcher, Doro Bechinger-English, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, believes that person-centered care facilitates a closer connection between a patient and healthcare provider. “The healthcare professional shows their presence by connecting with me as a patient and a person”, she says. “Person-centered care also means being open to my values, anxieties, concerns and preferences however small or alien they seem to be.”

Redesigning our healthcare systems to adopt a patient-centered perspective is not without its challenges in an acute care system that is primarily reactive, but ultimately doesn’t every patient deserve to be treated in a system in which he or she feels known, respected, involved, engaged, and knowledgeable about their own care?

1 Gerteis M, Edgman-Levitan S, Daley J, Delbanco T. Through the patient’s eyes: understanding and promoting patient-centered care. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass; 1993

 

Why Your Patient Story Matters

“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” North American Indian proverb

As a patient or caregiver you may be asked to share your personal story with others. Your story serves as a powerful tool for raising awareness and offering valuable insight into the patient experience. Stories can be a bridge between the technical, rational world of scientific practice and the experiential world of patients. Stories also create a shared sense of meaning and community in our lives, lessening the isolation many of us feel when faced with a chronic illness.

The Power of Story

Stories have existed in our culture from the beginning of time. We use stories to derive meaning from experience and to pass along knowledge and wisdom. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that your brain is in fact hardwired to respond to story. Your brain on story is different from your brain when it is receiving any other form of information, including straight facts and data. While facts and figures engage a small area of the brain, stories engage multiple brain regions that work together to build rich emotional responses.

In 2010, a group of neuroscientists at Princeton University used an fMRI machine to monitor what was going on inside the brains of both story-tellers and listeners simultaneously. They discovered that whilst the speaker was communicating to the listener, both their brains showed very similar activity across widespread areas. Their brains were effectively ‘in sync’ with one another suggesting a deep connection between storyteller and listener.” [1]

Tapping the Power of Patient Stories

Humans have an innate desire to feel connected with others who live life through similar lenses. When I first started telling my own story on my blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, I did so in the hope that others on the same path might find some resonance and the knowledge that they are not alone. Chronic illness can be an isolating experience but the very act of sharing our stories with others counteracts the isolation we so often feel. It carries within it the seeds of community and connection which makes us feel less alone in our journey. Diabetes patient advocate and blogger Renza Scibilia captures this feeling when she writes: “There are billions of stories in the world and when we find people we connect with, we reach out and want to hold on. I know that’s how I feel about the Diabetes Online Community – I hear familiar stories and want to grab onto them and the people who wrote them because they help make sense of my diabetes life.”

Patient advocate and author, Jackie Barreau, believes the importance of sharing her personal story lies in “the ability to connect, empower and help others. It is also uplifting and inspiring to hear of people’s hardships whether through illness or unfortunate life events and the positivity & optimism they convey”.   Not only can sharing your story lessen feelings of isolation and open up new avenues of support, it can also offer vital diagnostic clues when others are searching for answers. Jackie explains, “through my volunteer work with for example, the Unicorn Foundation, as an admin for an online patient support group I see first-hand patients joining our group due to lack of knowledge and misinformation provided by their general practitioners and also physicians.”

The National Gaucher Foundation of Canada has coproduced an excellent storytelling toolkit with rare disease patient advocacy organization, Global Genes. It states that “medical terminology and data, though undeniably important, can obscure what it means to live with a disease and make it difficult for most people to relate. Personal stories, though, frame our individual experiences in a way that lets others connect and find diagnostic clues that may have been missing.” Isabel Jordan, the mother of a son with a rare disease, credits reading a patient’s blog to help her finally see the pattern in symptoms in her own son’s life, which set them on a new diagnostic path. “As a parent of a child with a rare disease I’m constantly looking for patterns, for clues, for ideas of what could be next in our diagnostic journey,” she writes, “I look for researchers, doctors, other connected parents to see what they are posting. It was through reading someone else’s blog that I could finally see the pattern in symptoms in my own son’s life. Connecting the dots by seeing them in someone else let me provide valuable clues to our own clinician researchers and now we’re heading down a new diagnostic path.”

How To Tell Your Story

Whether you tell your story through public speaking, print or online social media, take some time to plan ahead for what you will share and how you will share it. Speak from the heart; be accurate, honest and persuasive. The following questions will help you to develop your story in order for it to have maximum impact.

  • How much of my personal story am I willing to share? Be prepared that telling your story might make you feel emotional and vulnerable so enlist some support if you think you might need it.
  • What is too private to share? Let the audience know your boundaries.
  • How comfortable is my family with me talking about my story (or theirs)?
  • What supporting material will make my story stronger? Can you use pictures, research data, and statistics to support your story? Create an experience in images that evokes an emotional response.
  • What is the main take-home message you wish to leave your audience with? Focus on two or three main points for clarity.
  • What do I want my listener to do when I am done? Do you want your listeners to take action after hearing your story? Outline clearly the next steps they can take to do so.

Taking the decision to share your story is a personal one. Emma Rooney, a rare disease patient advocate has this to say:

“I’ve been telling stories since I was a child but my health story always seemed like something to keep private. Despite living with a rare disease my entire life, it wasn’t until becoming a young adult that I decide to share my journey with Gaucher disease. Openness to sharing has led me to other patients who have similar health experiences, and also connected me with stories that are very different from my own. This diversity helps me to better understand my condition and to connect the dots with new information. Storytelling has provided a type of healing that drugs alone can’t offer. My health is an evolving story, and continuing to be a storyteller is part of my wellness strategy and my way to contribute to the global community of patient advocates.”
Each of us has a compelling story to tell; a story with the power to build connection, increase understanding, and move others to take action. Developing our skills as storytellers is a powerful tool in our patient advocacy toolkit. Your story is a precious resource; use it wisely and well.

[1] PNAS.org: Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert and Uri Hasson.