Patient Engagement the New Buzz Word? I Don’t Think So!

Lately, all I’ve been hearing and reading about is patient engagement.  It’s the newest buzz phrase in healthcare.  Last month, my local HIMSS chapter dedicated an entire conference day to patient engagement.  Speakers talked about, “How to make Patients your Partners”, “How to develop a Patient centered communication strategy,” “How to engage Patients in their healthcare through consumer facing devices.”

I googled the term patient engagement and I got close to 6,000,000 results.

“Patient engagement is the holy grail of an effective healthcare delivery system.  With healthcare reform on everyone’s lips, it is critical to any successful reform because without engaged patients, even the most promising of reforms is unlikely to take hold”. 

Clearly, the internet confirmed it’s a hot topic.

The Get Well Network, a company that provides Interactive Patient Care solutions to hospitals calls patient engagement: “A national health priority and a core strategy for performance improvement.”     Leonard Kish, a healthcare strategy consultant, refers to it as: The Blockbuster Drug of the Century”  claiming it narrowly beats out Viagra.  The Center for Advancing Health (CFAH) defines patient engagement as: “The actions we take to benefit from the health care available to us.”    Rob Lamberts, a practicing physician, thinks patient engagement: “sounds like a season of ‘The Bachelor’ where a doctor dates hot patients.”   Really?

So if one were to believe what they read on the internet, then patient engagement is a:

● strategy
● drug
● healthcare tool
● TV show
● holy grail

You might wonder why I’m being so sarcastic about this.  Why am I making fun of a term used by so many of my colleagues that I respect?  I’ve been working in healthcare for almost 30 years.  Maybe I missed something, but haven’t we been engaging patients all along?  It seems as if patient engagement is talked about as if it were a goal that we haven’t achieved yet.  Let me explain…

I was recently discussing a new book I just read on patient engagement with a friend.  Can you imagine, I said, an entire book, 463 pages, written about engaging patients in healthcare?  At the end of my babble, my friend agreed and said, “You’re right; communication is an important part of healthcare.”  My response: “Communication isn’t important to healthcare, communication is healthcare.”  For example, I tell my physician what’s going on with me, how I feel, she listens, shares her thoughts with me (and maybe with other providers) and then we decide what to do with the information for my benefit.  Isn’t that how it works?

Our healthcare system today doesn’t embrace this definition.  You see, I am no longer the center of my physicians care but rather a source of data so my physician and hospital can get meaningful use checks. I am the proof that my physician and hospital is accountable.  Instead, my medical record now is the focus of my physicians’ attention.

We fawn over medical records. Companies earn colossal profits from medical records. We hold huge conferences to celebrate medical records. We charge patients money to see their own medical records.  We even build special portals where patients are allowed to peer in through a peep hole to see special parts of their medical record.  Our healthcare system today is all about making records, not engaging patients.  These records are for the storage of ideas, not the transfer of them.

Documentation has taken over healthcare. It chokes the heart out of healthcare, the communication of ideas.  Healthcare providers are no longer paid to communicate….they are paid to document.  Communication takes time and time is not reimbursed. Communication prevents unnecessary care, which is a revenue stream. Communication eliminates waste, and waste is food that feeds the system, the bricks that build the wings to hospitals, and the revenue source that pads budgets.

So what should we do?  I’m not entirely sure.  I know it is a stressful time to be in healthcare today whether as a patient, provider, or administrator with expectations running high that we should be both empowered and engaged, while tracking every healthcare indicator possible.

What I do know is healthcare today is a collaboration. It’s a collaboration between the patient, physician(s), and any other healthcare provider involved in a person’s care.  There has to be communication with patients.  Patients should be engaged with their physician in a relationship.  Patients should not only have access to their medical record, they should be able to contribute to the record.  It’s a two way street.

The way I see it patient engagement is about interaction, listening, and learning in a relationship to another person.  Patient engagement is not a strategy, it is care—patient care.   And that is why I am involved in healthcare.

By the way, my physician just called.  I passed my yearly physical. Whew, I won’t have to log onto the internet to get my result.

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