Conference focuses attention on importance of patient- and family-centered care, health education, communication

Health education, communicating with physicians, and patient- and family-centered care that empowers patients to be their own best health advocates, were some of the topics discussed at the Health Watch USA conference in Lexington this month.

Joycelyn Elders

“Patient empowerment is the right of the patient to take an active role in decisions about his or her own care,” said former U.S. surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas. “But you can’t make a good decision if you have not been educated. You can’t keep an ignorant population healthy.”

Waiting until a person is old and set in their ways and then trying to teach them better health strategies doesn’t work, Elders said. For patients to really be involved in their health, health education must start early.

“We must push for comprehensive health education in our school systems from kindergarten through 12th grade,” she said. “It is just as important as teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. . . . We need to have science-based answers rather than ubiquitous myths. We need to protect people by arming them with correct information.”

Elders offered some practical suggestions to help patients become more empowered during their doctor’s visits:

  • Take a trusted person with you.
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand.
  • Bring all of your medications with you.
  • Write down questions and concerns before you go.
  • Ask your doctor to write down information and instructions discussed.
  • Make sure to tell your doctor if you have vision or hearing problems.

Elders said health education for physicians could also be improved, by putting more emphasis on preventive care and the treatment of chronic diseases, which are 75 percent of diseases in the United States, rather than acute diseases.

“We spend only 3 percent of our health-care dollars on keeping people well,” Elders said. “We have to do a better job. We haven’t educated our doctors.”

Karen D. Meyers

Karen D. Meyers, a lawyer who works with catastrophic-injury victims and health-care providers, said medical schools must start teaching doctors how to become better collaborators, not only between specialties, but with their patients as we move toward a model of patient and family centered care.

“They must learn to treat patients with dignity and respect, listen and share information with their patients, and allow patients to participate in their care,” said Meyers, who became an advocate for patient- and family-centered care after becoming a health advocate for her mother, who was in a coma for 40 days.

Elders said patient empowerment requires the patient to take some responsibility for his or her care, which requires respectful communication and shared decision-making between the doctor and the patient. The current physician-patient model of care does not support this concept, Elders said: “This has to change.”

Meyers concurred, saying physicians, hospitals and patients must change the attitude of “my patient, my treatment plan, my procedure, my case” to a model that recognizes that “everything about a patient’s health belongs to the patient and their family.” She added, “Patients have to understand, because they are responsible for their care.”

Health Watch USA, based in Somerset, was founded by Dr. Kevin Kavanagh to promote health care transparency and patient advocacy, according to its website. For its report on the conference, in PDF format, click here.

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