“Because, with me, you couldn’t have forced me to do it until I was ready… and for me, it was really being scared. It was like, I can’t believe, in my 20’s, I’m on blood pressure medication, and they’re saying stroke and heart attack in my 30s. It scared me [into action].”
We hear a lot of conversation about the importance of patient engagement these days, but Clint’s health story makes it real. A Fort Collins city employee, Clint had several avoidable conditions that he didn’t manage—he wasn’t engaged in his own health. The turning point for him came when he finally understood the effect these conditions were having on his longevity, and decided to make lifestyle changes. He and many other Coloradans have found great value in taking a more active role in their health and health care—from lifestyle changes to advocating for their own needs.
Research has demonstrated that a constructive and two-sided relationship between patient and provider improves outcomes and lowers costs. When patients are full participants in their own health care encounters and treatment plans, they are more likely to have the understanding, skills, and commitment they need to manage their own health. The most important strategy for patient engagement—whether as a provider or a patient—is clear communication. When a provider doesn’t understand a patient’s concerns, fears, or desires for their health, their clinical advice may not connect with a patient. When a patient does not fully understand their diagnosis, their treatment plan, or the effect of not acting on their provider’s instructions, they are less likely to follow through on any medical advice. Tools like the Patient Activation Measure can help providers and patients understand the various levels of patient engagement, and how to move into higher levels of activation.
The give-and-take of a conversation makes an important difference; providers and patients can work together to develop a treatment that would best fit the patient’s needs and lifestyle. The challenge for both providers and patients, as well as the larger health care system, is how to bridge the current patient-provider communication gap. There are more obvious gaps, like a language barrier or overuse of jargon, but there are many more subtle communication gaps, like patients feeling too embarrassed or timid to ask a question or being unsure how to apply their provider’s advice to their lives. When communication is easy to understand and processes easy to navigate, we may see less frustration and disappointment among patients, and ultimately, more compliance and better health outcomes.
Health care can feel one-sided; however, the patient is the most important determinant of their own health and should be more involved and engaged in their own health care. This shift to empowering patients should come as a relief to providers, whose work has more positive, lasting impact when their patients take on personal health responsibility. For Clint and many others, it’s a bright, healthy future that comes from being in charge of your own health.