The need for patient engagement is not a new concept in healthcare. But as the industry evolves to accommodate trends such as value-based care, and also works toward achieving the Triple Aim of improving patient experience, improving community health, and lower per capita healthcare costs, it has become increasingly important for patient engagement strategies to be taken outside of the clinic walls so that they can be used to help address all of an individual’s care needs.
What Is Patient Engagement?
What exactly is patient engagement? Well, to engage in something is to actively participate in it. So, at its core, patient engagement is when a patient is actively involved in their own care. This participation may take a variety of forms, but ideally, a patient who is fully engaged will have the opportunity and ability to be an involved in both the decision-making process while creating their care plan and be able to take ownership of its day to day management. This strategy is extremely important because patients who have ownership in their own care have a tendency to be healthier and have better long-term outcomes.
What About Outside the Clinic?
The health of every individual is impacted by factors that go beyond the traditional scope of healthcare. These social determinants of health (SDoH) include things such as housing stability, income stability, transportation access, health literacy, and social isolation. Many social service providers have shifted towards care plans that are focused on whole person care, meaning that they are attempting to address all of the factors that impact a patient and not just the clinical diagnoses. But, just like in clinical care, the chances of long-term success are higher if patients are involved in their own care and so patient engagement needs to go hand-in-hand with whole-person care for individuals to have the best chance of success.
How Do You Engage a Patient?
So how do you engage a patient in their own care, particularly when there are existing barriers such as a lack of health literacy or lack of the reliable transportation needed to access care? One strategy that health and social service providers have used to better engage patients is to employ community health workers. Though these individuals are used in a variety of ways across different organizations and disciplines, at their core community health workers are trained individuals who are meant to bridge the gap between patient and provider. They provide a lower-cost option to address needs that traditional healthcare is not equipped to handle, such as social support, informal counseling, health advocacy, and even treatment assistance such as medication monitoring; and in doing so they free up licensed medical professionals to focus on their own specialties.
Community health workers often share a common socioeconomic or cultural background with the people they serve. This common ground allows them to build trust and relationships in a way that is not always possible for traditional providers. Their ability to work in the neighborhoods and get into homes also means that they are an invaluable resource to help patients learn the skills they need to manage their own care.
While community health workers have been around for years, a more recent strategy to help patients be engaged in their own care is by utilizing technology. According to a Pew Research study, 95% of Americans now own some type of cell phone, with 77% owning a smartphone. This almost universal access to communication allows providers and patients to easily communicate and collaborate in a way never before imagined.
In addition to simplifying routine tasks such as reminding patients of appointments and notifying them of test results, technology opens up countless ways to overcome some of the traditional barriers to reliable medical care. For example, a homebound patient may be able to use telehealth options for some appointments. Or a provider may recognize that the patient needs additional resources to understand their condition and can then easily send the necessary information right to their phone. Two-way messaging provides the ability for patients to ask simple questions without having to make an appointment or travel to the provider’s office.
Technology is also opening up new ways for patients to manage their own day to day care. Patients can now easily access the information they need to understand their condition. They can also utilize mobile apps that help them manage their medications, there are even tools to help them track their blood pressure or count the number of steps they’ve walked each day. The possibilities are nearly endless for patients who utilize technology in their own care.
Whether using traditional methods such as the support of a community health worker, or utilizing modern technology, patients have the best chance of positive long-term outcomes when they are fully engaged in their own care; both at the clinical level, and while addressing the social determinants of health.