How to Be An Empowered Patient

A clinical room featured from the Kaiser Permanente’s Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington, DC

What does it mean to be an empowered patient?

In the last couple weeks, the topic of “being an empowered patient” has surfaced several times. Thus for this week’s blog post, I thought I would discuss, from a health communication perspective, what it means to be an empowered patient.

One of the main goals for my work in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer research (HBOC) is to teach individuals — whether that involves students, family members, friends, or research participants — how to be an empowered patient.

To me, being an empowered patients means having influence over my own healthcare interactions and affairs. It means I constantly seek health information, which could come from my providers, the Internet, my social support networks, my family members and friends, or other sources. It means I know what my health needs (and desires) are and I communicate those things to my healthcare providers. In short, being an empowered patient means I actively participate in my health interactions in order to make informed health decisions and enhance my overall quality of life.

The ability to be an empowered patient, though, requires a few things. First, to be empowered, a patient has to have sufficient knowledge. For example, many of my undergraduate students don’t realize they have the right to request and see their medical records. So if you don’t have that knowledge, then how can you even advocate for yourself in a medical encounter? As such, one of the first things I teach my students about patient empowerment is the Patient Bill of Rights. The Patient Bill of Rights was created to make sure healthcare organizations provide fair as well as optimum care to all patients.

Second, to be empowered, a patient has to be able to critically self-reflect. You cannot advocate for yourself unless you understand what you need and want out of a medical interaction. So in my health communication class, throughout the semester, I have my students engage in self-reflection prompts — thinking about how the concepts we are learning in class relate to their own lives and how they might be able to apply those concepts in future medical encounters.

Third, to be empowered, a patient must have certain skills. Although there are many communication skills that can be helpful in medical encounters, here are three ABC’s of health communication that you can start doing today!

  1. ASK Questions — Don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare provider questions. As patients we often do not ask our doctors questions because we may feel we are taking up too much of their time or we are embarrassed that we don’t understand something. If you have felt this way before, write down your questions prior to the appointment. Then tell you doctor at the beginning of the consultation, “Hey, I know you are busy with many patients, but there are a few really important questions I would like answered today. Here’s the list. Can we make sure to talk about them at some point?”
  2. BRING Information — Note health-related information and keep detailed records. Keeping meticulous records and bringing information is especially important if you have a chronic condition or see many different healthcare providers throughout the year. Have a list of medications in your wallet or purse. Create a binder or folder of all your appointments. Or use technology like mobile health applications to make sure you are able to provide your doctor a holistic view of your health.
  3. CHECK Understanding — Verify that you understand the information provided to you by the healthcare provider. This communication skill is perhaps the most helpful. Oftentimes doctors give us a lot of information in healthcare interactions. So before leaving your appointment, make sure to say to either the doctor or nurse, “Based on my appointment today, these are the things I need to do…Is that correct?”

In sum, having knowledge of the healthcare system, being able to critically self-reflect, and performing specific communication skills can help us be empowered patients who make informed health decisions and improve our quality of life.

How Can You Provide Feedback?

How do you define patient empowerment? Do you have any other techniques and strategies for being an empowered patient? Share your thoughts with me below. Also, if you like what you are reading here, please share it via social media. Finally, you can follow me on Twitter @marleahdeank.