As the old adage says, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  This is also true when it comes to patients and being engaged in their own care: you can give them all the tools, technology and information, and yet they may do nothing about it.  This shouldn’t stop healthcare professionals from working toward improving patient engagement and actively encouraging patients to want to be involved. 


I personally remember years ago when I had to get a copy of part of my medical record along with an x-ray to take to a specialist for treatment I was seeking.  It cost me about $10.00 for the copies needed, and I had to sign a waiver that if I lost the documentation that I was solely responsible for anything that came of it.  Not only was it a hassle to go to my doctor’s office, wait for the copies, deliver them to the new doctor, and then wait for that next appointment, but I felt like I was walking around with my life in my hands with all that medical data under my arm. 


Nowadays, records can be transferred electronically with just your signature, and a lot less stress.  The information is still kept private, and depending on your healthcare system, you may be able to even access some of your information, such as test results or doctor’s notes without ever having to leave the comfort of your home.  The EMR or Electronic Medical Record system is one of the ways in which patients can be more involved in the healthcare, able to ask questions of their physicians and eliminate some of the stressors that had been commonplace years ago. 


There are other ways in which electronic communications and information can be used for improving patient engagement, including:


  • ability for a doctor to treat a patient in real time, rather than having to do hours’ worth of research and many follow up appointments
  • ability for both doctors and patients to leave messages rather than only being able to communicate face-to-face
  • ability to renew prescriptions without an office visit
  • ability for patients to access reliable and dependable information so as to educate themselves
  • ability to schedule appointments personal doctor and other specialists

Some patients and physicians have seen electronic communications as a way to avoid personal engagement, however, this concern has been expressed by those that are unfamiliar with things like patient portals or instant messaging systems.  One of the main sources of access for this type of information and communications is a smartphone.  In 2017, an estimated 77% of all Americans owned smartphones.  This kind of access to the internet truly is an avenue for improving patient engagement due to the fact that the phone is readily available and easy to use.


Improving Patient Engagement Steps


Another way to help insure improvement to patient engagement takes a step back from the technological advances and involves someone calling.  At some moments, it is helpful for everyone to get a follow-up call, especially when many new routines, medications, and other appointments may be involved.  What numerous healthcare organizations and facilities have found is that patients are discharged from the hospital or other services with a small packet of detailed information.  The experience as a whole may have been overwhelming and a whirlwind trip for the patient, which means that pertinent questions might not have been asked or even realized, directions from healthcare staff could have been vague or quickly glossed over, and a full understanding of changes to lifestyle may not have been recognized. 


For these and many other reasons, having someone call a patient after they have returned home can serve many purposes.  This advocate is able to answer questions, help interpret directions, but should also be able to set up or reschedule appointments and explain the importance of each meeting.  The involvement helps to cultivate trust, reduces the likelihood of patients failing to heal and progress, as well as lessen the number of people that fall through the healthcare cracks and end up in the emergency room due to dwindling health. 


For those of you that have had family members that have gone through a significant health crisis, having the means to know what is going on with that family member is priceless.  This sort of engagement is becoming more familiar to healthcare professionals as we have a large aging population.  It may be the case that the ailing family member isn’t able to participate in the day-to-day routine of their care, and can’t use a computer to find out information.  However, the ability for other family members to act on behalf of the patient, to look up and help the patient goes a great distance in making sure that the patient has the best possible outcomes. 


Improving patient engagement isn’t always about technology, nor is it always about dedicating resources to holding a patient’s hand through the whole process of recovery.  There are balances, there are expectations on both the patient and professionals side of the coin, and there are engagements yet to be discovered that may help those that aren’t always willing to help themselves.  The healthcare community is learning a lot and is working to catch up with many other industries that have utilized customer engagement for a long time.  Slowly but surely, that horse taken to the water may actually decide to drink, and there will be healthcare professionals that will be there to help in any way possible.