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Patient Engagement: It Can’t Wait

May 7, 2014
by Paul Cerrato
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Both technology and culture are keys to successful patient engagement, note industry experts

Robust patient engagement could spell the difference between bankruptcy and financial stability. That may seem like an extreme assessment of today’s healthcare environment, but as Bob Dylan once said, “The times they are a-changin’.”

The public is no longer looking solely to their physicians for advice on diagnosis and treatment. With access to a wealth of online resources, many are taking matters into their own hands—for better and worse. Among the most popular health-related web sites they look to, according to a recent report from the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (iHT2), Top Ten Things You Need to Know about Engaging Patients, are:  PubMed, Medline Plus, WebMD, and In order to maintain the loyalty of such “activated patients,” clinicians need to more fully engage them in their medical care, steering them in the right direction and away from unreliable sources of information.

 In a recent Health Affairs article (“Connected Health and the Rise of the Patient-consumer”-- Health Affairs. 2014. 33(2): 191-193), William H. Frist, M.D., the well-known heart transplant surgeon and former U.S. Senate majority leader, spoke of the urgency of paying attention to this growing movement of patient/consumers.

“We Stand at a Tipping Point”

In the article, Frist points out that “America’s healthcare delivery sector stands at a tipping point” and speaks of two levers that are likely to bring about a completely re-engineered system: the empowered consumer and advances in information technology. In his view, these two forces “will channel our chaotic, fragmented, and wasteful healthcare sector toward a more seamless, transparent, accountable, and efficient system.”

Of course, skeptical clinicians will likely counter that most of their patients aren’t driven to take charge of their own treatment and prefer to remain “passive receptacles” of care. But as Frist explains, the market only needs about 10% of the public to become smart healthcare shoppers to push the industry over the edge. Those providers who focus their attention on meeting consumer needs will grow stronger and become more sustainable.

A closer look at the dynamics that govern a person’s health status helps explain why patient engagement is at the heart of better medical care. Most of a person’s health is determined not by the 10-15% of care they receive through the healthcare industry, emphasizes Frist, but by their personal behavior, genetics, social interactions, living conditions, and so on. Put another way, trillions of dollars are being spent on professional medical care to generate only a tenth of the nation’s health.

Address Patients’ Needs Outside Your 4 Walls

To have a truly profound effect on patients’ health, clinicians need to address the issues that occur outside their four walls. During a recent interview with Bradley Case, vice president, care innovation, at MEDSEEK, a company that builds software to help providers influence patient behavior, Case spoke about several proven patient engagement strategies to address these kinds of issues, including allowing patients to schedule their own appointments, request prescription refills online, and view normal test results without going into the office. Case summed up an effective patient engagement strategy succinctly: “Give the patients what they want.” Bradley Case and his colleagues will take a deeper dive into this topic on Tuesday May 23 at the Health IT Summit in Boston during their panel discussion: “Tools and Strategies to Engage Your Patient Population.”

While having the right technology in place is essential for engaging patients, Bruce Metz, PhD, CIO at Lahey Health, says one key to success is to “create of culture around patient communication…. There’s a lot of internal training going on [at Lahey] for nurses, NPs, PAs, physicians, and other members of the staff around what it means to engage patients in a partnership…You can put technology up but if it’s still in an old culture, you’re really not going to get the benefit.” Metz will be discussing patient engagement, as well as Lahey’s go-live strategy, vendor management, and much more during the Boston IT Summit, sponsored by the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (iHT2) on Wednesday May 14, during a panel entitled “Anatomy of  Health System—Lahey Health.”

William Frist’s article, as well as the comments from other thought leaders in healthcare IT, help to drive how three key points:

  • Clinicians can no longer keep patients in the dark; a growing number of patient/consumers demand more information about how to manage their condition.
  • Patients want the same convenience they are used to getting from other businesses; that should translate into services like online access to test results and answers to basic questions.
  • The practitioners who fare best in this new environment will embrace activated patients rather than shun them, maintaining a partnership mind-set rather than a them/us way of doing business.