Though I understand the argument that patients already have substantial power and ultimately are already in control over whether to follow through with treatment and self-care, I believe that clinicians can take proactive steps to encourage patients to be more engaged in decision and care.Why ask clinicians to "empower patients"? Though it is desirable for patients to take an active, and even the lead role in health care decisions and plans, many are reluctant to take charge or feel unprepared or unsure about how to play a more active role in self-care and self-management of chronic conditions. (See an article by Wendy Levinson and colleagues for data on patient preferences for involvement in decision making.)
Clinicians can help their patients understand the benefits of active involvement in decisions and self-care. Engaging patients in decisions and care is even more valuable when patients have serious life-threatening illnesses or chronic conditions that require ongoing self-management. Self-management can be quite challenging for any person with a single chronic condition and most people, particularly older adults, have multiple chronic conditions that they must manage simultaneously.
Self-management requires considerable expertise, effort, energy, expertise, coping, problem-solving and juggling. I have only 2 chronic conditions, yet I have spent a lot of time and energy on learning and actively managing my conditions.Moreover, when clinicians actively include patients in the decision making and care, they are also "supporting autonomy", which has been recognized as an important determinant of motivation and subsequent behavior change. (Patrick & Williams, 2012) Supporting autonomy and building partnerships with patients are key elements of Self-Determination Theory, Motivational Interviewing and models of Shared Decision Making.
In my teaching and writing, I have used the term, "empowering patients" as a way of helping clinicians consider inviting patients to participate in decisions and learn strategies that will increase their capacity to manage their conditions and stay well.
Jessie's death in July, 2014 was a huge loss for all those who advocate for greater patient engagement in care, though her legacy lives on through the Center for AdvancingHealth.Jessie has written passionately about the importance of understanding what it is like for patients to live with a chronic condition and what they need to be successful in coping with illness. In a blog post written at about the same time she received the SBM Health Engagement award, Jessie wrote:
"The idea that I should "manage" my chronic disease has always struck me as optimistic daffiness on the part of those who want me to do this...My image of having a serious chronic disease is of a cowboy riding a rodeo bull.....You call that management? No. But it gives you a pretty good idea of what it feels like to have a serious chronic disease. Most of us are just trying not to fall off the damn bull."During our brief conversation at SBM, Jessie reminded me of the importance of viewing patients as the source of power for promoting health. She understood that, from the patient's perspective, the clinician can't empower a patient. Offering education, sharing decisions, and teaching self-management skills only go so far. Power comes not from the clinician, or a caregiver; it comes from within. Patients are already powerful, though they can become more prepared and skilled when they seek information, participate in decisions, prepare for visits, and learn and practice self-care skills.
Clinicians can empower health, not patients. Patients are already powerful!