The terms patient empowerment, health literacy and patient engagement which are mantras of health care reform can be somewhat confusing because of the variation in meanings based on the user. When analyzed in relationship to each other however, the meanings become clearer.
Health literacy is a means to an end. Patient empowerment is a process utilizing the means. Patient engagement is the end product of the two. A natural analogy is a tree. Water from rainfall and nutrients in the soil which help the tree to grow are equivalent to literacy. The process of the uptake of water and nutrients through the roots which enable the tree to grow and produce leaves and fruit can be likened to patient empowerment. The actual growth of the tree including the production of leaves and fruit is akin to patient engagement.
In literal terms, patient engagement is the actual involvement of patients in their health management and care in ways that are beneficial to them and their doctors. It might involve sharing and exchanging information with a doctor over the Internet, instituting healthy lifestyle changes, choosing appropriate medical insurance, monitoring blood pressure, tracking blood sugar, or notifying a doctor of any signs or symptoms that might be indicative of a medication reaction. These are just a few of many possible examples of patient engagement.
In order to be able to carry out many of the activities of patient engagement it is necessary to have a basic understanding of relevant health information and how to use it to make good choices in managing one’s health and care, which is the meaning of health literacy. Acquiring pertinent basic knowledge is the first step toward achieving proficient literacy. In order to understand how to apply that information it might be necessary to formulate questions and then seek answers.
Patient empowerment is the actual process which results in increased health literacy. It might consist of reviewing printed information, reading books or other publications, listening to audios, watching videos, asking doctor questions, or other educational activities.
Thus, the empowered patient is one who has undertaken actions necessary to understand and use health information to make good decisions in the management of his or her overall health and medical care. The empowered individual in general, is also more informed about issues pertaining to health care reform and therefore is better prepared to make any adjustments that it might require.
If health care reform theories are correct, the patient engagement which results from empowerment, over time, will be an end. That end is better treatment outcomes and reduced cost of care.