Empowering patients to take charge

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Neil Gulsvig
Neil Gulsvig

In September, we introduced Align's blog series, “7 Key Drivers of Patient Transitions.”  Today we want to discuss the first driver of successful patient transitions: early and active patient engagement. The recent buzz phrase “patient engagement”, as it refers to patients taking a more active role in their own healthcare, is front and center in today's healthcare conversations. 

Research supports the notion that engagement of patients in monitoring and managing their own healthcare elevates the patient's role from passive recipient to active director. It is widely accepted that allowing and encouraging patients to take charge when making healthcare decisions not only enhances the patient experience but also improves health outcomes and contributes to cost savings.

What is patient engagement?

It sounds simple. But how do we engage patients? We recognize that patient engagement involves more than good customer service and simply keeping the patient in the loop. Engagement requires emotional, cognitive and behavioral patient responses. We must remind ourselves that patients come to us with their own unique perceptions, misconceptions, desires, goals and expectations. Our first task is to understand what those are. Only then can we truly engage patients in addressing them. The engaged patient has a desire to be actively involved in healthcare decisions that impact them and their families. Indeed, engagement is a crucial part of the patient experience, defined by the Beryl Institute as “The sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization's culture, that influence patient perceptions across the continuum of care.”

A culture of patient engagement

Nothing can sabotage your organization's efforts to engage your patients more than inconsistent behavior among your staff. Imagine the patient's confusion if one nurse sits down with him, explains blood pressure and why it's important, demonstrates how to take a blood pressure,  and allows the patient to practice and record his findings, while the next nurse simply takes the patient's blood pressure, tells him what it is (or not!) and records it in his chart. Actions by staff to support engagement need to be always events. All staff, from the business office manager to the dietary aide must interact with all patients in a way that allows and encourages them to respond emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally to the challenges put before them. Every patient encounter needs to be one that facilitates engagement and supports the patient in meeting those challenges from admission, through discharge and beyond.

Early and active patient engagement is critical, as patients who are actively engaged throughout a post-acute stay are more likely to be successful managing health care needs once they leave your care. With early and active engagement, you are positioning not only your patients, but also your organization, to achieve the best, most successful transition outcomes. Active and early patient engagement will allow you to bridge the gap between what your patients need and what your organization delivers.

Take action: How to create a culture of engagement

Fostering a culture of engagement doesn't happen overnight. Depending on how you and your staff have interacted with patients in the past, it may require a substantial paradigm shift. Giving up control to patients may be difficult for some staff who are used to being the directors and deliverers of care. So, where can you start? Consider these strategies:

  • Identify staff behaviors that facilitate patient engagement and develop performance indicators.
  • Educate all staff on the concept of patient engagement and why it is a critical component of patient experiences and patient outcomes.
  • Ensure that staff behaviors include emotional support to patients related to disease acceptance. Incorporate celebrations for small successes and help patients feel like a partner in their healthcare journey.
  • Encourage staff behaviors that meet cognitive patient engagement needs.  Employ interactive and varied patient education encounters that focus on disease, treatment and lifestyle changes. Offer concrete instructions versus vague or abstract recommendations to help the patient adhere to his or her treatment plan.
  • Educate staff to meet behavioral engagement needs. Encourage patients to openly communicate and ask questions of their health care providers, access healthcare in a timely manner, manage medications safely, perform procedures accurately, and use aids, devices or technology to assist in disease monitoring and recommended lifestyle changes.
  • Solicit input from patients and families on what engagement means to them and how you can make your organization more person-centered.

Recognizing patients as whole persons and engaging all patients in all of their care all of the time will enhance patient experiences and lead to better health outcomes.

Neil Gulsvig, CEO of Align, has more than 35 years of experience in the field of senior healthcare and extensive knowledge in human resources, communications and operations. 
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