Do a Google search of the term ‘empowered patient’ and you will be inundated with thousands and thousands of links defining the empowered patient, instructing how to be an empowered patient or advising how to deal with an empowered patient (run for the hills and refer them on to another HCP). Health conferences have sessions dedicated to patient empowerment, there are countless social media sites and blogs on the topic, and there are many journal articles – written from the perspective of both the patient and HCPs about what patient empowerment means in healthcare. It could be considered a buzz term, even though it’s been around for some time.
Health organisations for conditions from diabetes to Sjögren’s syndrome(look it up!) dedicate pages of their websites, events and resources to guiding people to become empowered and ‘own’ their condition. It’s not a new thing, and while embraced my many, is still treated with some scepticism and nervousness by some and dismissed by others.
I am what I (and most) would call an ‘empowered patient’. Whilst, I acknowledge that the term is widely understood, I’m not sure that it really is a term with which I’m comfortable. Perhaps because the empowered patient can be considered difficult and annoying – a know-it-all who is there to try to take over the expertise of their HCP. That’s absolutely not what I am trying to do with my healthcare. When it comes to diabetes, I am the first to say I know nothing about diabetes – that’s why I see an incredible endo. But MY diabetes? I am the Universe’s leading expert in that!
For me, being an empowered patient simply means that I am in the driving seat as well as being navigator of my health issues– primarily diabetes, but also other things as well. (Last year, I demanded that I have a D&C following a miscarriage despite the OB wanting to just ‘wait and see’. Waiting and seeing for me would involve horrible pain; excessive bleeding and dealing with the miscarriage whilst on a long haul flight back home from NYC. Previous experience told me that. So I made sure that my wishes were not only known, but also carried out.)
In sixteen years managing diabetes there have been very few instances where I have blindly followed medical advice without asking questions, weighing up all possibilities and talking with others about their experiences.
But I wonder how much being empowered about my health condition and active in decision making is simply because that’s the sort of person I am. When planning for anything, I am organised and informed. I seek out the right people to speak with, I consider options, I ask a lot of questions. I make decisions based on what I have learnt and what I think will be best for me. Whether it is planning a holiday, choosing a contractor or looking after my health, I empower, educate myself. It’s my personality; it’s how I roll.
So does it mean that people who are not naturally like this miss out on the choices and options afforded to people who seek them? Does it mean that if someone is unable to empower themselves (perhaps because of language or cultural barriers, their personality or a lack of understanding of, or an inability to navigate the system) they wind up with substandard care?
Being an empowered patient isn’t at the expense of the expertise and knowledge of the HCP experts we’re working with. It helps form a partnership. I honestly do believe that it is because of our empowerment – our demands and expectations – that we receive better care, better options and, possible, achieve better outcomes. We make our HCPs accountable and answerable, but more than that, we make ourselves accountable and answerable. Sharing in the decision making means we also have to take responsibility when a medical treatment doesn’t necessarily work out the way we hoped. But I’m willing to take on that responsibility.