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Patient Engagement? How About Doctor Engagement?


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It’s a stressful time to be a patient these days, what with expectations running high that we should be both empowered and engaged while self-tracking every trackable health indicator possible – and of course retaining an all-important positive mental attitude – in order to change health care forever. 

Whew. I had to go have a wee lie-down just thinking about how big that responsibility may seem on days when we patients are feeling, yes, sick -  as an annoyingly significant number of patients living with a chronic and progressive illness tend to feel on any given day. That’s why we’re called “patients”.  

Frankly, I’ve also become increasingly weary lately over the explosion of industry interest in the engaged patient, defined by the Center for Advancing Health like this:*

“Patient engagement: actions individuals must take to obtain the greatest benefit from the health care services available to them.”

As I wrote here recently, industry has basically co-opted this concept of patient engagement as part of a strategy to help boost sales by cashing in on the growing ePatient movement.

Scratch any health care social media or online patient education site, for example, and you’ll likely find it clogged with eager input from paid industry employees whose job it is to snag their particular product/app/device as many online mentions as possible while raising brand awareness. You may even find that such sites are fully funded by industry.

A recent firestorm of comments – many of them from Real Live Patients – greeted a Linked In announcement recently (posted by a paid employee of a private Toronto company that organizes conferences) when it was discovered that her National Forum on Patient Experience did not actually have one single Real Live Patient included in the event.

But while so many of us patients are feeling obligated to keep tap dancing through life being as engaged and empowered and positive-thinking as possible most days, I can’t help but notice that a lot of physicians out there seem to be far less swept up by the same engagement hype.

Steven Wilkins over at the health blog Mind The Gap, which focuses on improving the quality of communication between physicians and patients,   seems to be noticing this, too:

“For too long, the focus among health care thought leaders has been all about fixing the patient. If only patients were more engaged, more knowledgeable, more compliant, more trusting, more prepared, ask more questions, etc.

“There is a significant body of research which suggests that health care provider behaviors (like their communication style) are just as responsible as patients for many of the shortcomings in health care today.”

Some examples from my own writing travels:

  • Dr. Richard Frankel is a Regenstrief Institute research scientist at the Indiana University School of Medicine who studies ways to improve the doctor-patient relationship. He expressed this particular concern about doctor-patient communication:  “We know that doctors ask patients whether they understand what was just discussed less than 2% of the time.”
  • A well-known study by Beckman and Frankel published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that patients were allowed to complete their opening statement expressing why they’re seeking medical care in only 23% of physician interviews. The average time to interruption was just 18 seconds.
  • Dr. E. James Potchen at Michigan State University researched the degree of certainty that the most accurate radiologists had compared to the least accurate. He compared the top 20 radiologists studied (95% diagnostic accuracy) with the bottom 20 (just 75% accuracy) and found that the radiologists who performed poorly were not only inaccurate, they were also very confident that they were right when they were, in fact, quite wrong. (Journal of the American College of Radiology: Vol. 3, p. 423, 2006)
  • The Archives of Internal Medicine published a 2008 Northwest University’s School of Medicine study on patients’ own preferences of exam room etiquette vs. the actual reality as captured on videotape during the study. In over half of all doctor/patient visits, doctors did not mention patients’ names at all.
  • I wrote here last year of  a study reported by a team of researchers from RAND, UCLA, and UC Davis about the contrast between what physicians believe and what they actually do when it comes to seeing if their patients are staying on track with their medications. Here’s what they found:
    • Although physicians uniformly felt responsible for assessing and promoting medication adherence, only a minority of them asked any detailed questions about adherence.
    • Although providers often checked medications a patient was taking, they rarely asked about missed medication doses.
    • Most cases of non-adherence detected during office visits were revealed through unprompted patient comments.

So despite years of published research warning that up to 50% of patients are not taking their prescribed medications as directed, it seems that doctors are still somehow magically expecting patients to be 100% compliant (a word, by the way, that I and many other patients find cringe-worthy).

Perhaps docs would rather just assume this to be the case unless patients volunteer their own non-compliance confessions – which according to this study, patients are unlikely to do unless asked point-blank with a direct question.

With so many known reasons readily acknowledged by all parties (cost, distressing side effects, the burden of treatment, cultural and psychosocial issues, uncertainty about the actual need for medications, the challenge of managing multiple prescriptions, forgetfulness, etc.) you’d think that communicating with patients about taking prescribed meds or other treatment directives would be a routine practice for physicians.

In fact, you might even think that doctors would be as expected to be engaged with their patients as we are with them.

Dr. Dike Drummond, a family physician who provides burnout prevention and treatment advice for health care professionals at his site, The Happy MD, has this advice for his physician colleagues:

“Physician burnout can be thought of as one extreme of a continuum with career engagement on its other end.

“The feelings associated with full engagement in your career are ones of fulfillment and satisfaction. You feel your work makes a positive difference in people’s lives and your career has true meaning.

“Engagement is the emotional gold standard for career success  – and at the opposite end of the  continuum with physician burnout.”

When the Institute of Medicine (IOM) hosted a workshop for physicians in February called Partnering with Patients to Drive Shared Decisions, Better Value, and Care Improvement, organizers heard directly from doctors about possible barriers to engagement partnerships with their patients, as reported in MedPage Today.

Several workshop panel members, including Dr. Sherrie Kaplan of University of California Irvine’s Health Policy Research Institute, observed that “doctors are not incentivized to allow patients to ask questions or take a greater role in their care.”

* Translation of ‘incentivized’: they’re not making any money by helping you become more engaged in your own health.

Another workshop hosted by Health Affairs earlier that month had included comments from participants that “pay models need to be developed to reward doctors for helping patients take a greater role in planning their care.”

Dr. Jonathan Welch, an instructor in medicine at the Harvard Medical School and an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told MedPage Today that providers need to find better ways to listen to patients and their families, adding:

“The healthcare sector, unlike other service industries, does not listen well to feedback from its consumers.”

The good news from the workshop? These six tips for doctors to become more engaged in their patients’ journey:

  • Teach patients how to obtain and use their personal health information
  • Teach consumers how to navigate the health system effectively
  • Present patients with options and then listen to their concerns and feedback
  • Establish a connection and relationship with patients and their caregivers
  • Find new ways to listen to patients and their families

* Center for Advancing Health. 2010. White paper: “A New Definition of Patient Engagement: What is Engagement and Why is it Important?

More Blog Posts by Carolyn Thomas

author bio

Carolyn Thomas is a heart attack survivor and a 2008 graduate of the annual WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She was also named by “Our Bodies Ourselves” of Boston in 2009 as one of 20 inductees from seven countries acknowledged as “Women’s Health Heroes” for community activism in promoting women’s health. This post originally appeared on her Heart Sisters blog. She also writes at The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed and you can follow her on Twitter @HeartSisters or @TheEthicalNag.

Tags for this article:
Patient Engagement   Communicate with your Doctors   Health Care Quality   Heart Disease  

Comments on this post
Please note: CFAH reserves the right to moderate all comments posted to the Prepared Patient® Blog. Any inappropriate postings will be removed.

Carolyn Thomas says
May 28, 2013 at 5:49 PM

Thanks Goldie, Jessie and friends for running this Heart Sisters post, and special thanks to your work with the CFAH 2010 patient engagement white paper for inspiring it.

Carolyn Thomas says
May 28, 2013 at 9:06 PM

Thanks Goldie, Jessie and friends for running this Heart Sisters post, and special thanks to your work with the CFAH 2010 patient engagement white paper for inspiring it.

Mary M says
May 30, 2013 at 2:44 PM

I'd add one more to the list of tips for doctors: Try not to be judgmental or condescending.