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How Can Providers Drive Patient Empowerment in Healthcare?

According to Emil Chiauzzi, patient empowerment is a finely tuned skill that patients and providers work together to curate.

Patient empowerment is all too often seen as a characteristic an individual does or does not possess, similar to being funny or not.  Engagement and the ability to take charge of one’s health is a personality trait, many providers believe, and not necessarily a skill that can be taught or learned.

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According to Emil Chiauzzi, research director at PatientsLikeMe, however, that may not be an accurate description of patient empowerment.

In an effort to better understand patient empowerment, Chiauzzi and his team at conducted a study to identify what it truly is, and what which factors contribute to making patients more likely to take responsibility for their own healthcare.

PatientEngagementHIT.com spoke with Chiauzzi about patient empowerment and his research on the subject, highlighting best practices for identifying empowerment and inspiring it in patients.

What is patient empowerment?

Instead of being a character trait, Chiauzzi sees patient empowerment as a finely-tuned skill providers and patients develop together.

“I think the better way to look at it is that it is a skill that involves a variety of components, which has to do with problem solving, communication, ability to seek out resources, an understanding of disease and medical treatment associated with it,” he explained.

Throughout the course of the patient-provider relationship, patients can develop their sense of empowerment through their own education as well as provider encouragement.

Chiauzzi said there were two key methods by which providers can better foster patient empowerment.

First, providers must make resources available to their patients.

“Since education and health management are a big piece of this, a provider should  make sure people have an understanding of what skills are associated with managing their condition and make sure that they have access to those educational resources and people to communicate with about their condition,” Chiauzzi said.

By equipping patients with vital skills and resources pertinent to their conditions, providers drive patient self-management. These skills may also help inspire the patient to be more participant at the point of care by asking questions and engaging with their care plans.

This may not always be quick or easy. The second component of fostering patient empowerment is taking the time to work with these patients and fulfill all of their needs.

“Empowered people may take more time to deal with,” Chiauzzi explained. “They ask more questions. They’re more curious. They may not take no for an answer. They may want to delve into things a little more deeply. They may have aspects of their experience that they want to explain more.”

Although these patient habits may be more time-consuming, Chiauzzi said it is important that providers do not discourage them.

“There is a potential that they can be time-consuming because they are more engaged and understanding of their disease,” he said. “I think that providers have to be very cognizant of that and try to ensure that they encourage this kind of activity even if it costs them a little bit more time.”

What does an empowered patient look like?

In his research, Chiauzzi surveyed nearly 4,000 PatinetsLikeMe users on their self-reported patient empowerment levels. The survey also gathered information on patient perceptions of their care and what kind of chronic conditions they manage.

“In our study, people who were older, more educated, male, and with higher level of insurance certainly reported greater empowerment than those who didn’t have those kinds of characteristics,” he stated. “It makes sense because those are the groups that have greater access, more choices, and more education about their conditions.”

However, these results do not necessarily mean that older, educated men are the only empowered patients. Empowered patients are those who ask more questions, want to elaborate more on care plans, and ask for more explanation about various aspects of their conditions.

This usually results in better self-management.

“You’re going to have a patient who is probably more adherent to their treatment, they understand it better, and they’re more likely to understand when it’s not working,” Chiauzzi said.

Is there a difference in empowerment for certain conditions?

Patient empowerment may not only differ between different demographics, but also by different conditions. When looking at empowerment by condition, Chiauzzi found peculiar results.

“One of the interesting things that we found was that there are certain patients with certain conditions who reported a higher level of empowerment,” Chiauzzi reported. “We found greater self-reported empowerment in people who had Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis than people reported conditions like fibromyalgia and even the psychiatric conditions.”

Although Chiauzzi did not study the reasons behind this difference, he and the research team did develop one hypothesis.

“One of our speculations was that perhaps conditions that have a greater stigma might be associated with less of a sense of empowerment than conditions that might be more recognized, like Parkinson’s disease,” he explained. “Conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, are often difficult to pinpoint. The course is very uneven and tough to define.”

None of these findings are definite, Chiauzzi explained, saying that any patient of any condition or demographic can be empowered. Because patient empowerment is a skill, however, it is important for providers to be cognizant of these demographic differences.

“If a provider gets involved in treating a patient, it is important to know that there are certain factors associated with empowerment and they can be looking for those factors and trying to be proactive in understanding when certain patients will be empowered or not,” Chiauzzi explained.

When providers are aware of and act upon these differences, they are better equipped to help impart patient empowerment to their patients. Ultimately, this knowledge can help lead to overall higher quality care driven by all members of the care team, patient and provided included.

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