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Empowering patients to take charge of their health

How health care professionals can give patients an active role in their own care
Patient education

As health care shifts to a truly patient-centered model from the century of the physician to the century of the patient, health care professionals are seeing the importance of helping people take a more active role in their own health care. With a little help, consumers can learn how to manage their diabetes, their children’s asthma or how to navigate the complexities of cancer care.

“As specialization and sub-specialization continues to develop in the medical fields, the patient with complex health conditions may need to see a different physician for each organ impacted,” said J. James Rohack, MD, FACC, FACP, emeritus professor of medicine at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and inaugural holder of the Courtney Centennial Endowed Chair in Medical Humanities. “Trying to keep track of the numerous medications and therapies that are prescribed can be a daunting task for a patient, especially those who have low health literacy.  It is imperative that each health care professional be able to have the patient share in the decision making on what will work best for them to increase the chance that they will participate in keeping themselves healthy.”

Every type of health care professional interacting with the patient can contribute to this education. For example, pharmacists help patients understand what medications they are taking and how they might interact. In fact, Victoria B. Pho, PharmD, a certified geriatric pharmacist and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, sees patient empowerment as a big part of her job. “I always try to empower my patients,” Pho said. “Health care is a team effort, but the patient is the star player, and we all need to do what we can to help them succeed.”

Especially for older people or those with dementia, it can be important to educate not just the patients but also caregivers and members of their families. “When geriatric patients are surrounded by family members or caregivers, providers need to do their best to utilize that resource and provide education to create a safe haven at home,” Pho said. “It’s easy to feel alone or make mistakes if patients have to deal with their care independently, but if we can maximize that support group, we can help foster motivation and empower both patients and family members to achieve our patients’ therapeutic goals to improve in their quality of life and health.”

Because part of taking charge of one’s own health care means lifestyle changes to manage a chronic condition, having social support to meet those goals can be very helpful. Part of that social support may also be a positive, caring and optimistic dialogue with the health care provider.

“Shared decision making is a powerful tool that can be used to help engage the patient and their loved ones in active participation of key decisions on medication adherence, therapy participation and if an elective surgical intervention is needed,” Rohack said. “One has to be culturally competent, as communication style may need to differ. A polite nodding of the head up and down by the patient does not always mean understanding or agreement.”

“Through education, family members can empathize with the challenging lifestyle changes and understand complex treatment regimens patients may need to follow to improve in their health,” Pho added. “For example, family members can remind patients about follow-up with the medical provider to ensure continuous care, provide transportation for patients who may not be able to drive and help integrate important dietary restrictions or recommendations into their daily meal or snack plans. Every time I see a patient who arrives with a family member or friend who help support their care, I always make it a teaching point to my interns and a reminder to myself to take the time to recognize that effort and care provided.”

Even these simple acknowledgments can make a difference to caregivers, Pho said. They also appreciate creative ideas to customize the patients’ health needs, clarification on how to take their medication correctly and safely, reminders of the importance of continuous care and need for compliance with provider and lab follow-up, and guidance to utilize free resources. “Together as a team of providers, patients and caregivers, we can make a difference to improve the quality of each patient’s lives, motivate one another and empower our patients and their caregivers with constant education, clinical reminders and guidance from best practices and team efforts to make the journeys easier for our patients and to help them achieve their heath goals and improve their quality of life,” she said.

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