by Steve Wilkins

First posted on Mind the Gap on 02/17/2013

Steve Wilkins, MPH, host of “Mind the Gap”

Not long ago Nick Dawson, a friend and fellow blogger, paid me the compliment of saying I had inspired a post of his.   Well Nick now you have inspired me…and this post is the result.

Regarding the February Health Affairs edition on Patient Engagement the and follow-on Washington D.C. briefing, Nick writes:

Personally, I was disheartened by some word choices. Implying patients need to be activated suggests patients are passive and something has to be done to them in order for them to care about their health and interactions with healthcare providers. That misses the mark.

What about physician activation? … We should be helping health systems and providers find ways to reduce the stress and fear for patients who are already engaged.

Nick is right. 

The “Belle of the Health Affairs Ball” based on the social media coverage was Judith Hibbard’s interesting work linking health care costs to a person’s level of health activation.   While Dr. Hibbard takes pains to differentiate “activation” from “engagement,” most people are quick to conflate the two.  (Patient-centered communication bears a close resemblance to patient activation as well.)  Nick’s point is that focusing just on what the patient brings to the party in terms of their “knowledge, skills and confidence” is only half the problem.

What about physician activation?  Where in the Health Affairs special, or anywhere else for that matter, are discussions about the need to make sure that physicians (and other clinicians) have the knowledge, skills and confidence to effectively manage all the “already engaged” patients among us?

It Can’t Just Be About Fixing Patient Behavior

For too long, the focus among health care thought leaders has been all about fixing the patient.   If only patient were more engaged, more knowledgeable, more compliant, more trusting, more prepared, ask more questions, etc. 

There is a significant body of research which suggests that provider behaviors (like their communication style) are just as responsible as patients for many of the short coming in health care today.

Just as PAM research has shown that more activated patients generate lower costs…studies have shown that the physicians with strong patient-centered communication skills have lower costs as well.   I guess you could say that physicians with a physician-directed, bio-medical communication style have an equivalent of a 1-2 level of activation whereas physicians with a patient-centered communication style have an equivalent activation level of 3 to 4.

Pt Centered Communications and Outcomes2

Which Comes First – Activated Physicians Or Activated Patients?

I would argue that the real challenge facing providers today is to how to avoid disengaging or deactivating otherwise engaged and activated patients.

That’s because most people are already engaged in their own care, albeit not necessarily in the same way that providers want or expect.   So too, patients may well believe that they have the skills and knowledge they feel they need to deal with their own health…even if it is different from those skills, etc. measured by tools like PAM.

See : Patients Are Often More Engaged In Their Health Than Providers Think

In fact there is evidence to support this.  Patients with a regular source of care displayed significantly lower levels of patient activation that those without a regular source of care.  According to the researchers, “one possible explanation is that respondents with a regular physician are more likely to take a passive, deferential role in their care, believing their health care needs are being met by their provider(s).” *

The degree to which there is a “meeting of the minds” on engagement and activation between patient and physician, particularly during the office visit, will determine if patients are as engaged and activated when they leave the doctor’s office as they were when they entered.  It all boils down to how well the physician and patient are able to communicate.

Here’s what I mean.  How engaged or activated is a person going to be if what they have to say is interrupted, ignored or otherwise dismissed by busy, stressed  clinicians?  Is a patient going to share information or new skills they found on the internet with their physician if they are dismissed as a Googler?

The Take Away?

Nothing against PAM or Dr. Hibbard’s work which stand on its own merits.  Rather, it’s about health care being a two-way affair…with patients and clinicians both have a stake in health outcomes.  The sooner health care providers, academic researchers, and health publications like Health Affairs realize this…the sooner things can improve.

That’s what I think. What’s your opinion?

Sources:

Levinson, W., Lesser, C. S., & Epstein, R. M. (2010). Developing physician communication skills for patient-centered care. Health Affairs29(7).

Olson, D. P., & Windish, D. M. (2010). Communication discrepancies between physicians and hospitalized patients. Archives of Internal Medicine170(15), 1302-7. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2010.239

Roumie, C. L., Greevy, R., Wallston, K. a, Elasy, T. a, Kaltenbach, L., Kotter, K., Dittus, R. S., et al. (2010). Patient centered primary care is associated with patient hypertension medication adherence. Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Bertakis, K. D., & Azari, R. (2011). Patient-centered care is associated with decreased health care utilization. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine: JABFM24(3), 229-39.

* Alexander, J. a, Hearld, L. R., Mittler, J. N., & Harvey, J. (2011). Patient-Physician Role Relationships and Patient Activation among Individuals with Chronic Illness. Health Services Research, 1-23.