The $100 question about patient empowerment

by Devin Gross

Here’s a question. It’s not a 5¢ or $5 question that anybody can solve on their own without much thought or effort. It’s a $100 ask-an-expert or think-about-it-for-a-second question.

What’s the point of patient empowerment?

Much of the current discussion of empowerment deals with patients who for one reason or another have had to fight for their care. CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen opens her book, The Empowered Patient, with a moving personal story of her panicked battle to keep her child from having an unneeded spinal tap. Here on KevinMD.com, an article titled All patients will soon become e-patients, contained the quote, “But, I’m not a ‘regular’ patient. I’m pissed and I want answers. That’s where all those ‘e’s’ come from.”

The message from most discussions on the topic is that only the squeaky wheel gets the grease; only patients who are willing to get ‘pissed’ can get the answers and the care they need.

To put it simply, this message is not the whole story.

Patient empowerment is not about making sure patients get what’s theirs from the healthcare system. It’s about finding solutions to the problems that have plagued healthcare for decades by getting help from the one group that has the most at stake: patients. These problems (miscommunication, poor patient compliance and towering costs) can only be corralled if patients and providers work collaboratively.

This third problem, the cost conundrum, sits in the middle of all discussions about the future of healthcare. Little can be achieved unless we can manage to ‘bend the cost curve.’

Patient empowerment is at the center of this issue. Right now we have the wrong healthcare resources delivering the wrong levels of care. Everybody talks about the ER. Many patients ignore symptoms, get no preventative care and then get treatment in the ER for twice the hassle and a 100 times the cost of a visit to a general practitioner. Often these patients are portrayed negatively.  But the issue is broader. Every day patients, including those who are diligent and attentive, go to their provider to get weighed or to have some extremely basic service that could be provided elsewhere more conveniently and much more cheaply.

We don’t need to have our most expensive resources, real people who spent years at medical school and even more years in residency preparing for the cutting edge of medicine—we don’t need them answering $5 questions and performing 5¢ tasks. We can save the $100 questions for doctors and empower patients through better communication to answer the easiest questions on their own. We can offer tools for empowered patients to get more involved in their care.

The result will be better outcomes, cheaper care and more satisfaction for physicians and patients alike.

We can’t solve the lasting problems of healthcare without patients. And patients can’t get involved unless we give them the tools to help in a constructive way. That is the point of patient empowerment. And it’s worth far more than $100.

Devin Gross is CEO of Emmi Solutions and blogs at Engaging The Patient.com.

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