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Patient and Advocate Profile: Hannah and Carrie Ostrea

Before she was a year old, Hannah Ostrea was diagnosed with a rare genetic metabolic disorder, Neuronopathic Gaucher’s Disease type 2 or type 3. Hannah’s mom, Carrie, says the doctors told her to take Hannah home and to love her, but that she wouldn’t make it past her first birthday. “We became parents on a mission,” says Carrie who immediately began researching Gaucher’s and related diseases. Soon she began contacting researchers and sending samples of Hanna’s cells to them in the United States, Canada and Israel in hope that someone might find some way to help Hannah. Carries learn that very little was being done to understand the devastating effects of Gaucher’s and that the researchers who were dedicated to studying the disease were remarkably under-funded. Carrie also learned that there are a lot of people and a lot of children with rare diseases, but that there are not a lot of answers and not a lot of funding for any of them. She also knew, first hand, that there weren’t a lot of resources available to families with children with rare diseases. Care saw a need and she started taking the steps to fill it.

Her first step was creating the Little Miss Hannah Foundation (LMHF), a non disease-specific, Las Vegas-based, non-profit organization for children diagnosed with rare diseases, children with undiagnosed medical complexities, and children in hospice or palliative care. “All these diseases, they all suck. It doesn’t matter what the disease is.” says Carrie. LMHF provides resources for local children and their families and they also emphasize the importance of supporting the other children in the family. “We want the siblings to know they are important too,” says Carrie who adds that Hannah’s illness greatly impacted the lives of her two other children. “There should always be resources for a family like ours,” says Carrie who describes her experience as the parent of a child with a rare disease as isolating because of the lack of awareness, understanding and resources. The medical community doesn’t have answers and the insurance companies won’t always cover expenses because they don’t recognize or have never heard of the diseases. Through LMHF, Carrie is committed to providing families with financial assistance and the tools and support they need. It is LMHF’s mission to empower patients and their families and it is Carrie’s passion.

In addition to running LMHF, Carrie spent five years working with Global Genes, a rare disease patient advocacy group, and she is now using her business and marketing background as a consultant for organizations like LMHF. She says there are over 7,000 rare diseases and half of those have no support group. The ones that do are often started by patients or parents of patients, like Carrie, that are just trying to save a life. Often times they have little to no knowledge or experience about how to run an organization. “I educate them on where they need to go,” says Carrie who calls herself the big sister of rare disease groups. She mainly advises the groups on the business end of their organizations. As is true for many advocacy groups, funding and awareness are the greatest needs for rare disease organizations and Carrie says social media has helped tremendously. She says she has noticed a strengthening in patient groups and advocacy in the past five years. “Social media is a godsend to rare disease. It has given advocates a platform,” she says. “It just takes one person who is willing to put themselves out there to start a chain.”

Carrie continues to take steps to fill the need she saw when Hannah was diagnosed. She says there is a lot more work to be done, but that she will continue to share her knowledge to help others in whatever way she can. “We are very pay-it-forward in the rare disease community,” says Carrie. “There’s no time not to be.”

Hannah was three when she died. She spent the last seven weeks of her life at home surrounded by her family and in hospice care. She died in Carrie’s arms. The Little Miss Hannah Foundation is her legacy and so much more. “It’s our way of still parenting her,” says Carrie. “We just do it a little differently.”

To learn more about Hannah’s story and the Little Miss Hannah Foundation visit littlemisshannah.org.

Patient Advocate: Paul Ennis

Paul Ennis

Patient Advocate

In January 2012, Paul Ennis and his wife became caregivers to Paul’s parents, Mary and Thomas. Mary, who had severe osteoporosis, was showing increasing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Caring for her was becoming too much for Thomas who had his own health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis and prostate cancer. Eventually, it became necessary for Mary to receive around-the-clock care. With his own health declining, Thomas made the difficult decision to move Mary into a care facility. Then, he made another decision that led to what Paul describes as a series of very impactful events.

Thomas, who was 91, decided it was time to die. He was in pain, he was suffering, his body was failing, and his doctors could do no more for him. He told Paul he was ready to go. So Paul, someone who is inclined to gather information, set out to see what options were available for his dad. “He had the right to say he’s done,” says Paul who learned that his dad could legally make a choice to stop eating and drinking and that there was a protocol in place for the family to follow. With the doctor informed and at-home hospice care in place, Thomas made his decision. He stopped eating on a Thursday in January 2015 and four days later he died peacefully in his home of more than 40 years. Eleven months to the day later, Mary also died at home, and Paul is still moved as he describes his mother in her final rest, in the glowing light of the living room of the home she loved.

But, Paul’s caregiving didn’t end when his parents died. Paul saw to all the details of their death care and burials, including building their caskets and taking them in the back of his pick-up truck to their cemetery plots. “It was a real old school way of doing things,” says Paul who learned about the option of home death care when shopping for caskets with his dad in 2014. “What I discovered about home death care was remarkable.” The experience, he says, was an intimate and healing way to honor his parents and to receive a form of closure.

Paul documented his story when an online global think tank asked for stories regarding how people could rethink end-of-life experiences for loved ones. Paul’s was one of ten stories selected out of 400 entries. He was inspired to create a business model for a non-profit organization to aid with death and dying, but rather than focus on a singular aspect of patient care, Paul wanted to help patients in as many ways as possible.

He remembered a conversation with one of his dad’s doctors. The doctor told him that he should consider patient advocacy as a career. As a former business consultant with a background in communications and marketing, it felt natural for Paul to become a patient advocate consultant. He is now spending time building his new consulting business. “Mine is a communications-based practice,” says Paul, who approaches each client by asking them what they want. “I don’t come in telling them what I want to do; I come in asking what they want,” he says. While caring for his parents, he learned the value of having a patient advocate and recognizes how difficult it can be for some patients to self-advocate. “Navigating healthcare is pretty complicated,” says Paul whose natural compassion makes him well-suited for the work. Paul emphasizes the importance of patient health, safety and dignity and says the most important thing to him is that people are able to make choices, explore their options, get educated, and stay empowered. He also continues to share his story and information regarding the Voluntary Stoppage of Eating and Drinking (VSED) and at-home death care in hope that someone may get comfort from his experience. “That’s why I told the story,” he says.

You can read Paul’s story here and visit his website at http://www.pwepan.com.

 

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Patient Advocates

“Without doubt, you have to leave the comfort zone of base camp and confront an entirely new and unknown wilderness.” -Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was first published in 1989 as a business and self-help book. Covey presents an approach to being effective in attaining goals by aligning ourselves to what he calls “true north” principles. I was inspired reading this article by Melissa McAllister, to go back and read the principles behind the book to see how we might apply them to our advocacy work.

HABIT 1: Be Proactive

The first habit that Covey discusses is being proactive. I cannot think of a more apt description of patient advocacy – in order to be effective, we must be relentlessly proactive. Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor, and author of A Woman’s Guide To Living With Heart Disease, tells the story of how her cardiac symptoms were dismissed when she was first admitted to the ER. She wonders had it been her daughter or sister experiencing the same symptoms, what would she have done? The answer: “screaming blue murder to get the help this other person deserved, with no thought whatsoever of being labelled as “difficult”. We need to be as strong and as diligent about getting help for our own medical needs as we’d be if we were trying to get help for our loved ones.”

HABIT 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Habit 2 suggests that, in everything we do, we should begin with the end in mind. We should envision the end result clearly and work with purpose toward achieving our vision of optimum care for ourselves and others.  One of the best ways to incorporate Habit 2 into your life, according to Covey, is to develop a Personal Mission Statement. Consider creating a Mission Statement to put your advocacy goals in focus and make your vision a reality.

HABIT 3: Put First Things First

In order to be effective, we must learn to prioritize our day-to-day actions based on what is most important, not what is most urgent. This means learning how to say no in order to focus on our priorities. As Covey puts it, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  Dee Sparacio, author, blogger and ovarian cancer advocate, recently wrote on her blog about taking a step back from her heavy work-load of advocacy activities to focus on her priorities. She outlined a list of questions to help her decide which activities to prioritize:

  • How effective am I at doing that work?
  • Am I the only one doing that work?
  • If I am the only one can another advocate/person do it?
  • How much does the work benefit other survivors/patients?
  • How many people are effected by the work I do?
  • Do I ever regret having agreed to do the work and feel that way when I am doing it?
  • Does the work ever prevent me from doing other things – like hang out with my husband, grand-kids or dog?
  • Does that work bring me joy?

These questions can be helpful for us to look at our own activities and decide which advocacy roles we want to put on the top of our priority list.

HABIT 4: Think Win-Win

In our advocacy work, we will inevitably find ourselves in a situation where our wants and needs conflict with another’s. In order to practice this habit, we must commit to creating Win-Win situations that are mutually beneficial to each party. While recognizing this might not always be possible, this habit reminds us that we must at least try to understand the other person’s point of view and work if possible towards a mutually satisfying outcome.

HABIT 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Communication is one of the most important skills we can develop. While many advocates can speak well, how many of us are good listeners? Listening and hearing are not the same things. Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. Poor listeners are unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. They are more likely to interrupt and to jump to conclusions about what the other person is saying. Active listening requires critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence.  Developing the ability to listen deeply allows us to respond with an open minded empathy to another’s situation. We are less inclined then to interpret the other person’s words solely from our own perspective and frame of reference.

HABIT 6: Synergize

Synergize is the habit of creative cooperation. Covey describes this habit as one in which the whole is great than the sum of its parts: “It’s a process, and through that process, people bring all their personal experience and expertise to the table. Together, they can produce far better results that they could individually.”  From our own advocacy work, we know this to be true. We are stronger together. When we bring our collective voices, skills, and experience together, we achieve more. Covey points out that valuing differences is what really drives synergy: “When people begin to interact together genuinely, and they’re open to each other’s influence, they begin to gain new insight. The capability of inventing new approaches is increased exponentially because of differences.”

HABIT 7: Sharpen the Saw

Habit 7 is focused around taking time to renew our resources and health to create a sustainable long-term environment for our advocacy work. “Sharpen the Saw”, writes Covey, “means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you.”  In our desire to effect change quickly we can easily burn-out. Renewing ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally will help us practice each of these seven habits more effectively. 

Some Final Thoughts on Being an Effective Patient Advocate

 I asked some of my favorite patient advocates to share their thoughts on what makes an effective advocate. Here’s what they told me.

“Passion, persistence, patience. Self-leadership, clear vision, courage (at least sometimes!) ‘We’ attitude, optimism, hope, trust, belief in basic goodness. Ability to listen, collaborate, cajole, criticise (constructively), take criticism.” – Anne Lawlor, Founder, 22Q11 Ireland

“Knowing when you need to talk about your personal view or experience and when you need to garner input from other patients. Nobody’s voice speaks for everyone.” – Alison Fielding, Chair Cardiomyopathy UK

“Passion, tenacity and balance. If you don’t have a passion for what you do, you tend not to give your all. Tenacity for it is inevitable that someone will tell you no or close the door in your face. When that happens you must remember your passion. Balance because you need a life.” – Anne Marie, lung cancer patient and blogger at These Are My Scars

“Perseverance, stand your ground, listen, don’t be afraid (to ask questions or admit you don’t know something) – remind others you want the same.  Understand your goals, what are you trying to achieve and why.” – Julia, co-founder #BCCWW

“Passion, commitment, belief in what you are doing, being a voice for not just you but many, speaking out, assertive, having your opinion doesn’t matter if it’s unique, a great communicator and networker, good listener, resilience and determination.”  – Jo Taylor, Founder, After Breast Cancer Diagnosis

As you can see so many of these responses echo the 7 habits above.  Patient advocacy requires self-belief and a clear vision for what you want to achieve. Above all, it requires dedication, persistence and commitment. I am so proud to be able to work among such passionate patient advocates. The work is hard and often goes unnoticed, but your reach and impact is immeasurable.

Negotiating Cancer: Tips From One Who’s Done It

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Stefanie Joho, an advocate, speaker, and colon cancer survivor, for The Washington Post. You can see the original blog here.


At the age of 24, after two surgeries and two aggressive rounds of chemotherapy failed to cure me, my oncologist sent me home to die. When I was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2013, I’d never even heard the word immunotherapy. I didn’t know that my doctors wouldn’t have all the answers. I thought clinical trials were last-ditch efforts rather than treatments that save countless lives. I didn’t know that a treatment geared to fighting my specific type of cancer and the genetic components of my tumor would go on to potentially offer tens of thousands of patients a revolutionary new path to surviving cancer in 2017.

Because I’m one of the very few lucky ones who looked into the abyss and made it out on the other side, I feel it is my duty to speak up and share some of the critical things that I have learned in what is now a new era in cancer care. Because a disease that should have killed me instead launched my career in patient advocacy.

[‘This is not the end’: Experimental therapy that targets genes gives cancer patients hope]

First and foremost, it is important to remember that every cancer is unique. Your journey will be different from mine. Your cancer is yours and yours alone. So think of the following points as “road signs.” They’re ones that I wish someone had shown me when I felt lost, with nowhere else to turn. The goal of this guide is to potentially help shape your thinking as you become an active participant in saving your life. More than anything, I hope it prompts you to question the presumption of cancer care for nearly a century.

1. The more we know, the more we can fight for our lives. 

We look to doctors in their white coats to be the experts — partly because, in a moment of such despair, we want to be able to look to someone to just give us the answers. But you should know that you will not find that person in anyone but yourself.

In the beginning of my cancer journey, I felt intimidated by my doctors and made several decisions that I now regret. I walked into appointments and agreed to everything instantaneously, without even considering a second opinion. As my cancer kept coming back and the treatments kept failing, I decided that the only chance I had to make it out alive would be to become an active participant on my journey. I would have to educate myself. I scoured the Internet. I became an “expert” not only in my specific disease, but also in the current cancer landscape.

I’m in no way encouraging you to become your own doctor and understand all the science. And I’m certainly not encouraging you to take everything you read on the Internet as fact. But in 2017, with the amount of accessibility to information, I’m encouraging you to seek it out. Never take anything at face value or trust blindly. Make informed decisions, not decisions based on fear. Walk into appointments with your doctors as an equal, not as a passive bystander. Being an informed cancer patient today is a full-time job. As with any job, that means learning new skill sets and finding the resources needed to succeed.

2. Asking questions is not making trouble. 

You will often be made to feel that being a “good patient” means not asking questions. But do not be afraid to speak up. Your life quite literally depends on it. Come into every appointment with a prepared list. If possible, bring someone with you who can take notes. If you are confused about something, ask. If you think of it later, write it down. Remember: You’re the one whose needs are paramount. You’re the one who is fighting for your life. Make every thought, concern and feeling heard. If it isn’t received the first time, say it as many times as necessary.

If you begin to develop a symptom from a treatment side effect or from the cancer itself, understand that it is the system’s job to help you get relief. If your doctors aren’t taking you seriously, do not believe their judgment over yours. And if you feel that your physician doesn’t understand or listen to you, then perhaps it’s time to seek one out who will. In my opinion, an individual who does not have empathy is not a physician.

3. No two cancers are the same. Become an expert in YOUR cancer. 

No two cancers are the same. Increasingly, knowledge of such individual variation is being shown to lead to more effective treatments. Ask your physicians and understand every type of genetic testing available to you. The more granular you can get about the specifics of your disease, the more you will maximize your chances of identifying the best possible treatment for your “personal” tumor. (Discovering the genetic biomarker of my cancer saved my life.) Continue to expand your resources so that you can be an expert in your own cancer.

4. Take note of EVERY potential side effect. Report everything. 

The incredible advances in cancer treatments have created a new set of challenges for clinicians, especially in how to identify the side effects. Given that these are new treatments, your doctors are not as practiced with them as they are with chemotherapy and radiation.

For example, immunotherapy is entirely different from traditional treatment. The former utilizes the patient’s own immune system, whereas the latter aims to attack only the cancer cells. Early recognition and proper management of side effects can make the difference between life and death.

Don’t hold back a single concern from your doctor and care team. Even if you think it sounds minuscule or irrelevant, your oncologist needs to know everything to best care for you. Listen to your body. Observe and report any changes.

5. Clinical trials are not a last-resort option.

The lines of treatment are rapidly changing, and, more often than not, getting access to cutting-edge treatments entails enrolling in a clinical trial. There’s an unfortunate misconception that clinical trials are reserved for those who have exhausted all other options. In reality, trials can actually offer access to the most individualized cancer treatment. And in fact, immunotherapy is more and more becoming the first line of treatment — and even being used before surgery to prevent relapses.

And just as individual patients can’t tackle their disease by themselves, we all ultimately must help one another by sharing and participating in clinical trials. Only 4 percent of cancer patients are currently enrolled in studies. Explore trials at cancer centers with a lot of experience in the type of therapy being tested. See if you have options outside of what has been standard of care for 70-plus years.

In the doctor-patient relationship, patients must understand that they are partners of science and as big a part of the cure as doctors. Without us, and our willingness to participate, medical advances would not exist. I will always feel a tremendous sense of pride for participating in a study that will save many thousands of people’s lives.

6. Cancer is not just a physical disease. 

It is critical throughout your journey to address the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of this disease. Seek help, support and healing from other places, too. There are many schools of thought about why people become ill and what can be done to help them recover. It’s important to maintain your anchor in generally accepted medical principles, but don’t be afraid to look further up- and downstream to see if other currents of healing can add value for you and your care team.

As only one example among many, learning about nutrition made me feel as though I were actively fighting and doing something every single day to help my body heal.

7. Hope is a lifeline.

Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you. I believe in hope. Period. It saves lives. When your mind tells you that it’s over, the body has no reason to keep fighting. If you find yourself drifting in that direction, remember: “You haven’t failed the treatments; the treatments have failed you.”

Of course, doctors must tell their patients the difficult truth. But the specific words used to deliver such news matter. If your doctor is unable to provide you with hope or encouragement to keep fighting, find the hope and strength from within yourself and the loved ones around you.

8. None of this can be done alone. 

This might sound overwhelming. But with great power comes great responsibility. You are powerful, but you are not superhuman. Know your limits, and respect those limits.

Cancer is not a journey that you can navigate alone. The people and professionals with whom you surround yourself will alter the course of your journey. They will lend you strength when you feel you simply have nothing left to give.

If you physically or emotionally cannot actively advocate for yourself, then ask someone to be your advocate. When things were particularly bleak, my younger sister, Jess, often had to speak up for me. She knew what my doubts were, what my concerns were and what was important to me. She became my voice when I didn’t have one.

Create a health-care team that listens to you and cares about you and includes you in every aspect of your decision-making process.

Lastly, and so very importantly: Connect with others in the community. As much as your loved ones will do everything in their power to be there for you, they simply will not be able to understand the complexities of what you are grappling with on a daily basis. Making friends with other cancer patients (even through social media) enabled me to share the fears and anxieties that I was too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about with those who weren’t confronting their own mortality. I could speak openly about my side effects, the changes taking place in my body, my isolation. I could utter the words, “I’m ready to give up,” without the looming guilt associated with saying that to loved ones.

It certainly doesn’t have to be about only cancer, all of the time, but knowing that this kind of support exists is healing. It makes you feel understood.

Patient Advocacy: Understanding Your Illness

The news that you, or a loved one, has a serious illness can be a terrible blow.  You may be faced with an array of emotions ranging from shock to fear to anxiety. You will likely have many questions and concerns about what the coming days and months will bring, and the impact living with this illness will have on your life and the lives of your family. Although you may be reeling from the news, it’s important that you learn as much as you can about your diagnosis, its symptoms, how it may progress and what treatment options are available. In this article, you will learn which questions you should ask your healthcare team and where to find reliable and trustworthy information to become better informed about your health condition.

1. Obtaining Information From Your Doctors And Healthcare Team

Having answers to your questions can help you understand your illness 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, you may be in shock and in a heightened emotional state which makes it difficult to fully comprehend all the information you are given. If possible, bring a trusted friend or family member to appointments with you to take notes. If this is not possible, ask your doctor if you can record the consultation so you can focus on listening, and go back and review what was said later.

Medical care is a conversation and to have influence in that conversation you have to speak up. Never be embarrassed to tell your healthcare team if you don’t understand something they’ve 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.

Some questions to ask your doctor about your diagnosis:

  • What are the symptoms of this illness?
  • What should you do if you notice new symptoms or if existing symptoms worsen?
  • Do you need any further diagnostic tests?
  • What are your treatment options?
  • What are the side-effects of the recommended treatment?
  • What are the benefits vs the risks?
  • What happens if you do nothing?
  • Are there other treatment options available?

Finally, ask your healthcare team if they can recommend further reading, support groups and other resources to help you learn more about your illness.

2. Finding Reliable Information Online

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. Always discuss what you find with your healthcare team and ask them to put the information into context for your particular situation.

Here are some questions to help you determine the trustworthiness of online sources of information.

  • Who has produced the information?
  • Does the organization have commercial interests or another reason they are promoting this information?
  • Is the name of the organization and their aims in setting up the website clearly shown?
  • Does the site provide contact details if you have any questions?
  • Is the information on the website up to date?
  • Does it cite the source of the information that is being presented?
  • Does the site link with other reputable sites that give similar information?

3. Evaluating Medical News Reports

Whether it’s published in hard copy or online, medical news reports can mislead people into thinking a certain drug or treatment is the next breakthrough in a 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 will help you evaluate the reliability of medical news reporting.

  • Does the article support its claims with scientific research?
  • What is the original source of the article?
  • Who paid for and conducted the study?
  • How many people did the research study include?
  • Did the study include a control group?
  • What are the study’s limitations?
  • If it’s a clinical trial that is being reported on, what stage is the trial at?

Always try to read an original study (if cited) to critically evaluate the information presented. Understanding research literature is an important skill for patient advocates. For tips on how to read a research paper click on this link.

4. Learning From Peers

From helping us to uncover a diagnosis and finding the right doctors and treatments, to learning about everyday coping tips, turning to our peers can make all the difference in how we live with our illnesses.  Much of this peer-to-peer learning takes place through social media discussions on patient blogs and in Facebook groups and Twitter chats. On Facebook you can connect with other patient advocates and join Facebook groups related to your disease or health condition. On Twitter you have a greater mix of patients, physicians, healthcare professionals and medical researchers coming together to discuss healthcare matters. It is becoming increasingly popular for attendees at key medical conferences, such as ASCO, to “live-tweet” sessions. You can follow along on Twitter using the conference hashtag which you should find published on the conference website. Another way to learn on Twitter is to join a Twitter chat related to your health condition. Twitter chats can be one-off events, but more usually are recurring weekly chats to regularly connect people. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project.

Final Thoughts

Understanding your illness is the first step on the path to advocating for yourself and others.

Being an advocate involves asking lots of questions, conducting your own research, and making your preferences known to your healthcare team. By doing this, you will be better informed and in a stronger position to get the treatment that is right for you. If this feels overwhelming to you right now, go at your own pace, and reach out to others who have walked this path before you. There is an army of patients who are standing by, ready to share their healthcare wisdom and practical coping tips with you. Seeking their advice will help lessen the fear and isolation you may be feeling, give you a sense of shared experience and connection, and help you feel more in charge of your healthcare decisions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

How Do You Find Out About Clinical Trials?

Interview with Larry Anderson, Jr., MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Patient Advocate, Lynette, and Robert Orlowski, MD, PhD, Director of Myeloma and Professor in the Departments of Lymphoma/Myeloma and Experimental Therapeutics The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

From  the Virtual Town Meeting: Understanding the New World of Myeloma Treatment, Andrew Schorr first ask Dr. Anderson about how patients can find out about clinical trials, whether that be a governmental website, advocacy groups, or each institution’s individual website. Later he gets Lynette and Dr. Orlowski’s opinion on the matter. Check out the full video below to hear from three myeloma experts.

How Do You Find Out About Clinical Trials? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Myeloma Expert Roundtable

From the annual American Society of Hematology (#ASH16) Conference, Dr. Robert Orlowski leads a panel discussion with four  Myeloma experts about what’s new and exciting in the field of Myeloma. This panel included:

  • David E. Avignan, MD, Associate Professor, Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Active Staff, Hematology-Oncology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
  • Jennifer Ahlstrom, Patient Advocate and Founder of Myeloma Crowd
  • Noopur Raje, MD, Director, Center for Multiple Myeloma Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Gareth Morgan, MD, PhD, FRCP, FRCPath, Director of the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, The UAMS Myeloma Institute

Check out the full video below to hear from four Myeloma experts:

Myeloma Expert Roundtable from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Cancer Diagnosis – How and Who Do You Tell?

Interview with MPN patients and patient advocates, Lorraine and Karen

At the recent MPN Town Meeting, Andrew Schorr interviews patient advocate, Lorraine about how to explain and communicate with loved ones after a cancer diagnosis. He asks, What do you say? How do you handle it? Who do you tell? What do you tell your kids? Watch the full video below to hear Lorraine and Karen’s answers.

Cancer Diagnosis – How and Who Do You Tell? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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

Finding The Right Oncologist For You

finding-the-right-oncologist-for-youWhen you put your life in someone else’s hands, you need to feel completely comfortable and confident with that person – especially when that person is your oncologist. How do you go about finding the right one for you?

One of the best ways to find an oncologist is through referrals from people you trust, such as your primary care physician, family, friends, local hospitals or your insurance company. Many insurance plans allow their members to search doctors by name or specialty. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides a free, searchable database of ASCO member oncologists. These doctors opt to make their information available to the public.

Other medical associations offering searchable databases:

Once you have collected and written down a few possible oncologists’ names, remember to ask yourself these three questions:

What are their credentials?

Board certification is one of the most important factors you should consider when choosing an oncologist. It assures you that the doctor has the necessary training, skills, and experience to provide healthcare in oncology. Additionally, choose a doctor that treats your specific type of cancer and has related experience with that disease. The more experience the doctor has with a certain cancer, the better your outcome will likely be. Your doctor’s hospital is your hospital, so don’t forget to research the quality of care offered at that location as well.

What blend of traits are important to you?

Languages spoken, gender, and education may be important to you. You may also have strong feelings about personality and bedside manner. Some people want their doctors to have a business-like manner, while others value a doctor who can help with their emotional health as well as their medical needs. Whatever your preferences, the most important thing is finding an oncologist with whom you are comfortable.

What is their communication style?

Choose a doctor that values and respects your questions and answers you in a way that you can understand. Clarity and candor are highly important characteristics for a doctor. Make sure that your doctor values both shared decision-making and the best available clinical evidence, as well as your personal values and preferences throughout your treatment.

Once you have found a doctor that meets all the above criteria, ask him or her for an introductory phone call before scheduling an appointment. You should interview your potential oncologist the same way you would interview a lawyer or an accountant. Don’t be afraid to set-up introductory calls or appointments with a few oncologists for comparison. You may also want to consider the size of your doctor’s staff and accessibility to clinical trials.

Alongside considering size of practice, clinical trials or proximity to home, make certain that your new oncologist is someone you can work closely with and trust. Your new doctor will become the most valuable member of your cancer team, so it is imperative that you choose a doctor with whom you are comfortable.


Resources:

http://www.cancer.net

https://www.healthgrades.com/explore/8-tips-for-choosing-an-oncologist

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/findingandpayingfortreatment/choosingyourtreatmentteam/choosing-a-doctor-and-a-hospital

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.

Living Well With CLL

Interview with Patient Advocate, Jennifer Abraham

After her third cancer diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Jennifer decided she and her family were going to make the most of everything. She says her life is better than it has ever been and has learn to just be and live. Jennifer considers her cancer diagnoses almost a blessing because it pushed her to do things she maybe wouldn’t have done. Check out the full video below to hear more from Jennifer.

 

Living Well WIth CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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