Updated: Aug 3
Patient engagement in healthcare is a vague concept. It is an overutilized “buzzword” phrase and an under-implemented, complex notion. In an increasingly digital healthcare landscape, not only has the idea of patient engagement gained popularity, but its meaning has changed yet again.
Defining patient engagement is not an easy task. In a 2017 PubMed article, researchers set out to “unravel” the meaning and settled on the following definition: “Patient engagement is both process and behavior and is shaped by the relationship between the patient and provider and the environment in which healthcare delivery takes place.” (Higgins et al, 2017). This definition, vague still, demonstrates the complexity of patient engagement as a multi-factorial process influenced by human behavior, communication, and circumstance.
As a concept, patient engagement sounds great. It seems natural that the more engaged the patient is, the better the outcome is likely to be. It has become increasingly evident, however, that patient engagement is not simply connecting with your patients in-office or even converting a traditional in-clinic appointment to a virtual experience. Instead, the actual implementation of this concept requires a framework of processes and well-designed technology.
Now, enter one of the many digital health technology companies offering patient engagement tools. The problem is, even the health technology companies define patient engagement in a variety of ways. It is nearly impossible to know what you are getting and whether you are implementing the necessary infrastructure to support your organization’s patient engagement initiatives.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to think about patient engagement as a process is an active, bi-directional flow of information and open communication between patient and clinician. This flow of information can occur at any point in the healthcare process. Consider for this example that on a fundamental level, interactions with the healthcare system are divided into three main phases: pre-appointment, appointment, and post-appointment.
Many patient engagement solutions offer patient access tools for referral inquiries, appointment requests, and scheduling. These tools engage patients in the process of seeking and scheduling care before their appointment. The next set of tools help clinicians engage patients during the actual provision of care, including on-site questionnaires, standardized assessments, and telehealth technology.
Finally, some software companies offer practice solutions post-appointment, including access to health records, laboratory results, billing solutions, and care coordination for subsequent visits. Each of these tools improves practice management and reduces the administrative burden on healthcare systems. These tools also make it easier for the patient to access the healthcare system and their test results. But none of these tools encourage patients to understand their condition better, collaborate on the development of their treatment plan, or actively participate in the long-term process of reaching their health goals.
The infographic below sheds light on the lesser-known but critical aspects of patient engagement that truly drive improved health outcomes. The process outlined here connects the gaps in the healthcare experience, encouraging a continuous post-appointment process for the patient to participate in their health journey and work together with their provider to reach their goals.
Active patient engagement is an open information exchange between the provider and patient that promotes patient understanding, interaction, and empowerment.
Here is the process in greater detail...
Collaborate with patients to explain and build a care plan together. Facilitate a better understanding of conditions and treatments through high-quality patient education. Speak candidly about potential barriers to care plan adherence. Craft a comprehensive, tangible, digital care plan for patients to reference throughout their journey.
"Prescribe" health content, educational materials, and care plans just as you would medications. Treat these resources and learning opportunities as an essential part of the healthcare process. Deliver these "digital assets" in ways that are readily accessible and engaging for patients.
Provide a clear reporting mechanism for patients. Active patient engagement requires an interactive component including but not limited to: tracking, journaling, gamification, or discussion boards. These features empower patients to take an active role in their care plan and regularly communicate their progress.
Review and act on reported data to improve continuity of care in between office visits. Monitor a patient's progress, along with them, by viewing their reports. Identify when earlier intervention, escalation, or changes to the care plan are needed. Improve outcomes with improved patient data visibility and timely action.
The Implications for Care
With many patient engagement solutions, you might be engaging your patients in the process of getting into and out of your clinic, but not in their own healthcare journey. Providing a meaningful experience for patients beyond the point of care requires technological infrastructure to support the process of care plan building, digital resource prescription, patient reporting, and continuous progress monitoring. The implications of embracing a deeper definition of patient engagement are immense for improving patient experience and health outcomes.
For more information about Fitango Health’s truly comprehensive active patient engagement platform, please request a consultation. We can work together to support your organization’s initiatives and better educate, empower and engage your patients.
Written by: Dr. Jessica Cobb, PT, DPT, and Director of Business Development for Fitango Health, Inc.
Higgins T, Larson E, Schnall R. Unraveling the meaning of patient engagement: A concept analysis. Patient Educ Couns. 2017 Jan;100(1):30-36. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2016.09.002. Epub 2016 Sep 3. PMID: 27665500.