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Patient Awareness is Changing the Health Care Landscape
Health Care Resources & Tools

The rising cost of health care and easily accessible information online have turned once passive patients into knowledgeable consumers.

By Michele Meyer

Raised by parents to speak up and educated by the Internet, today's consumers arrive at doctors' offices armed with information and ideas on handling their health care. This combination of increased wisdom and misinformation among patients has forced health providers to adapt the ways in which they provide health information.

This new level of involvement means that patients are better able and more eager to take care of themselves. After news anchor Katie Couric underwent an on-air colonoscopy, there was a 20 percent boost in the rate of people who took the same type of colon cancer detection exam.

Adapting to Change
"The entire health care delivery system needs to undergo a major shift in perspective," says Gail Gazelle, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and president of a patient advocacy practice called MD Can Help. "Patients no longer can be viewed as passive. The best response is to view them as partners on a level playing field."

Along those lines, some hospitals now encourage staff to wear buttons saying, "Ask me if I've washed my hands," Gazelle says. "It seems tiny, but the buttons give such a strong message: 'Join us to take control of your medical care.' That small action can make a huge difference in objective - avoiding horrendous hospital-acquired infections. Instead, it personalizes care and allows patients to feel human, not powerless."

Involve Patients in Their Own Care
Data also shows if you monitor and educate patients you can avoid unnecessary hospitalizations, Gazelle adds. As a result, some HMOs have formed disease management programs in which nurse practitioners call diabetic and heart-disease patients weekly for reports on their symptoms.

When doctors offer options, not edicts, effects are profound. "Patients feel supported and are more enthusiastic and likely to comply," Gazelle says. "And lack of compliance is a bane of our health care system."

It's also essential doctors listen to patients. Many of us know someone whose test results were normal, yet felt something was wrong. "When the patient says, 'I live in this body, and something isn't right, even though tests are normal,' the doctor needs to follow up," Gazelle says.

Doctors can contribute to education and empowerment with brochures explaining conditions and options in layman's terms. They also need to emphasize that it's OK to call back with additional questions as they arise.

For the medical community, such customer satisfaction can mean greater profits, thanks to pay-for-performance criteria used by some insurers. With that and Internet access to report cards, hospitals have a lot more reasons to cater to consumer demands. "Failure to deliver improved customer satisfaction will result in a loss of reputation and thousands in bonus dollars. This change, in addition to having to deal with vocal, demanding customers, requires health care [organizations] to improve customer service and provide more personalized attention, coordination of care and value for consumers," says Elaine Berke, founder of EBI Consulting Inc. in Westport, Mass.

"Health care [organizations] can provide more personalized attention, coordination of care and value for consumers." And it has to be more than "smile training," Berke says. "In a patient-centered environment, physicians should respond to questions and complaints, and have an accessible, helpful, friendly demeanor."

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