Patient Empowerment: Don’t Let It Scare You

Updated on December 8, 2010
Lorene M. Burkhart

By Lorene M. Burkhart

Patient empowerment shouldn’t be a power struggle between the patient and the provider. When it works well, both the patient and the provider benefit by knowing that there is a shared responsibility for the patient and their health problems.

The positive benefits of patient empowerment have been studied and written about for decades. I recently was one of three speakers on a Patient Power Panel Discussion at the Indiana University School of Medicine. One of the physicians on the panel with me made an obvious, yet profound comment, “The right health care providers are delighted to meet empowered patients.”  Are you one of the right providers?

It’s easy to see how the patient benefits when the communication lines are fully opened, but what’s in it for the provider? Maybe we need to take a step back and ask why the provider has chosen to work in health care. If the reason is because they truly want to create healthy environments for patients to thrive, then it’s easy to understand the satisfaction that comes from working effectively with the patient.

Tips to help patients empower themselves

1. Examine your vocabulary as a provider. How often do you say “I” instead of “you?” Do you use empathetic words that encourage the patient to tell their full story?

2. Do you ask patients, “Have you told me everything I need to know to help you feel well?” An astute communicator will know immediately if information has been withheld.

3. Ask friendly “lead in” questions. (See above.) And think about the setting where you’re trying to gather information. Is the patient clothed or sitting in a gown? The latter is very awkward for most of us patients. Then you ask us to share intimate details about our bodies!?

4. When you are chatting with the patient, make it meaningful. For instance, inquire about their job, retirement, family and friends. Many times there are clues about the real reason they are there.

5. When faced with what may seem to be an insurmountable diagnosis for the patient, i.e. cancer, major heart surgery, etc., offer the services of other colleagues who may provide guidance. Maybe a second opinion option, hospital counselors or chaplains, conversations with patients who may have had similar experiences (social networking might help). Or just ask if the patient would like their provider to talk to a family member or friend.

6. Work to build trust. As we all know, fear is not friendly. It fills us with anxiety and the inability to make good choices. When the provider makes an effort to dispel fear, trust begins to develop. Ask yourself, “Would you want to undergo a major health calamity with someone you don’t trust?”

7. When it is necessary to be firm with orders, be gracious. (A little honey goes a long way with the cod liver oil!) Phrasing such as “I can understand your reluctance – so let’s discuss various options,” would be more preferable for the patient than, “Here’s the surgery date, here’s the prescription,” etc.

8. Involve the patient in choices, while providing wise counsel. If the patient is not capable of making decisions, insist on having a family member or other trusted individual present.

9. Don’t present yourself as infallible. Health care providers are human and they sometimes make mistakes. But explain everything that is being done to eliminate that possibility. And refer to number 5—make referrals.

10. If the patient must be hospitalized, ask if the patient and/or their advocate (family or friend) have ever had a tour of the hospital? Here’s the opportunity for good public relations. Provide a map, point out areas available for family and friends, and explain visitation rules. This would include the need for hand sanitation and other efforts on the part of the “visitor” to maintain a safe environment. Help visitors become a part of the recovery team.

At the end of the day, ask yourself if you were a participant in a good or a bad experience. If all you ever see is the bad, then your attitude will spill over to everyone around you. Everyone has days that aren’t the best. Examine what happened and what you role was in the experience.

Now back to the empowered patient. When they feel supported in their efforts to be more active rather than passive, everyone benefits. Explanations need to be understandable. Positive head nodding is encouraging for further discussion. When the patient leaves the medical environment, they need to feel that their questions have been answered and that their provider is not passing judgment. The empowered patient begins to gain confidence, which translates into taking more responsibility for their bodies and their health.

It’s a win-win for everyone with trust and respect on both sides.

At the age of 76, Lorene McCormick Burkhart continues to challenge the status quo. Ignoring “old age-isms,” she forges ahead with her career of being an author, which originated at age 70 when she decided she probably had 20 good years remaining (so what was she to do?). To date she has authored six books, including her most recent, a title on patient empowerment Sick of Doctors? Then Do Something About It! A Prescription for Patient Empowerment. For more information please visit

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