Patient, consumer engagement only begins road to empowerment

Most everyone with even a passing interest in healthcare information technology is headed to Chicago this week for the Health Information and Management Systems Society's HIMSS15 conference. (Actually, most everyone is already in Chicago, including FierceHealthIT Senior Editor Dan Bowman and FierceHealthcare Editor-in-Chief Gienna Shaw. If you see 'em, buy 'em a Diet Coke or coffee, respectively.)

I join the crowd later--Wednesday morning, to be precise--for two reasons. One, we need to cover the entire event, and it's rather inhumane to ask Dan to stay for five days, so we decided to take shifts. Two, I'm leading an audience discussion Thursday morning: "Beyond Patient Engagement: The Road to Patient Empowerment."

I've moderated discussions at conferences before--just never at one as big as HIMSS, where attendance nears 40,000. I'm not saying my name merits mention alongside keynote speakers such as Humana CEO Bruce Broussard and former President George W. Bush--well, maybe my last name does--but I'm still proud that HIMSS approved first my application and then my presentation, both of which I conceived and pitched myself.

Frankly, engagement matters more than ever. It's just as important as cybersecurity, interoperability and innovation, which are just three of the topics the FierceHealthcare team will watch at HIMSS15.

Consumers increasingly demand better, more affordable care; better, more intuitive access points with the healthcare system; better, more comprehensive resources to help them make their own care decisions, and better, more frequent interactions with the physicians, nurses, care coordinators and insurance representatives who guide them through this multi-trillion-dollar industry.

But engagement, as I hint in the title of my session, is only the beginning. You can give patients a portal, but if it's unwieldy, it doesn't work on mobile devices and it doesn't actually let them do anything, they will abandon it. You can give members an online provider directory, but if it doesn't tell them anything that a 15-second Google search would otherwise reveal, they will abandon it. You can give consumers a wellness app or device, but if you don't offer tangible, long-term incentives for consistent use, they will abandon it.

Patient engagement should begin a process that ultimately ends in empowerment. Only when consumers feel respected and valued as patients and members will they and their caregivers truly be empowered to make the right short- and long-term care decisions.

How do you get there? It's not easy--and I suppose it's why HIMSS deemed it a topic worthy of discussion. That said, I have a few thoughts.

First, treat patients like people. Jean Valjean is more than a number. So is the unnamed protagonist of Iron Maiden's "Prisoner." Learn the goals and ambitions of those you serve and you can make a great deal of progress toward providing the services that matter most to them.

From there, treat patients like individuals. Earlier this week, an NPR story suggested that, for many patients, the annual physical is a waste of time. Throughout adulthood, mine have lasted no more than 30 minutes and ended with my doctor lauding my overall health but suggesting I drink a little less coffee. Even my pediatrician shared the same advice every year: Improve your flexibility and gain some weight. (I can do the former, but the latter is well nigh impossible.) These visits provide an annual reminder that the physical benefits some patients but not others. The same holds true for many other treatments 

Finally, treat patients like partners. Yes, the average M.D. knows more about medicine than the average Joe. The average insurance agent knows more about the billing process than the average Jane, too. But the individual consumer of healthcare services knows his or her body better than anyone. In an increasingly consumer-centric market, providers and payers who fail to respect the opinions and desires of their patients and members risk losing them.

If you'll be at HIMSS, feel free to join the discussion. My session is Thursday, April 16 at 10:30 a.m. Central time in room S403. If not, no worries: HIMSS is a single event, but the conversations that take place resonate for the rest of the year. 

Plus, if you can't make it to Chicago, that means more coffee for me. Sorry, Doc, but I'm allowed one vice. - Brian (@Brian_Eastwood and @HealthPayer

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