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Patient Engagement: Put a Ring on It!

February 15, 2017

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M. KATHLEEN LUKE-MARKEE, MBA

When you look at the definition of the word “engagement” you find words like involvement and commitment. It’s also described as a pledge, an obligation or an agreement. Most descriptions include an engagement ring. Add a person who has been under medical care or treatment (patient) to this definition and you get “Patient Engagement!” Ok, so now Patient Engagement is defined, but why is it so important? Why is any type of commitment important, what drives us to make such a commitment, why is it easier to commit to others, yet so difficult to commit to yourself?

Patient engagement has become a key strategy in healthcare that refers to the tools and actions taken by patients, caregivers and healthcare providers to promote informed decision-making and behaviors to facilitate improved health outcomes. The importance of “patient engagement” has been widely researched and discussed with evidence supporting its significance on lowering cost and improving patient outcomes.

I believe that patient engagement is also making a commitment to yourself to listen to what your body is trying to tell you, and to react by making healthy choices. Whether you commit to checking your blood sugar daily if you’re a diabetic, interacting with your patient portal or going to the gym, these commitments are important to your health. It can be argued that the most important commitment to yourself is NOT to ignore your body when it speaks to you. Your body has a voice. Listen to your body when it’s in pain and find out what’s causing the pain, because ultimately, it’s trying to tell you that something is wrong. 

I think there are several factors, including complacency and apathy, that can be blamed for our failure to heed our body’s warnings. And so, it is with life; things can look good on the outside…but what lies beneath the surface could be quite a different matter. This describes my sister Kim’s life for the last 6 months. She’s a single mom who looks healthy, with a normal weight, and is always willing to do more for others than for herself. She has a lot of energy and always focuses on everyone around her; her 3 kids, her grand kids, her mom, her siblings, her friends, work, and the list goes on and on. What she’s never focused on is herself. 

In July of 2016, Kim started having pain in her abdomen. She ignored the pain for as long as she could, and finally went to see a doctor. Her physician diagnosed her with a kidney infection, gave her some medication, and she went back to her daily routine. She took the medications as prescribed but still didn’t feel good.  Her stomach ached but it was manageable. Fast forward to Christmas 2016, the lingering stomach pain intensified again and she was diagnosed with a bladder infection. She took the medications but continued to deal with an unfailing ache in her belly. She never really explained to the doctor that the pain was lingering; she hadn’t yet made that commitment to herself to listen to her body, because something was not right.

A month later the stomach pain was uncontrollable. She finally agreed to have my brother take her to the Emergency Room. After a scan of her abdomen area, the ER doctor diagnosed Kim with a colon tumor and an ovarian tumor. She was admitted for emergency surgery and the tumors were removed. Eleven days later she was discharged from the hospital with a diagnosis of stage 3 cancer in her bowel. The surgeon believes that he “got it all” and indicated that the ovarian tumor was benign.  He recommended that Kim receive chemotherapy to ensure that the cancer was eradicated. 

At this point, Kim’s life has radically changed. Prior to the last 6 months, everything appeared to be just fine, problem free. But life’s bitter reality has altered her future and she’s learned the unpleasant lesson about the need to be committed to her health – to herself. Now, she understands that she needs to be well balanced and self-disciplined, being alert and cautious, looking for the signs of ill health and the importance of catching it early.

I believe there are many lessons that can be learned from Kim’s experience, some of the ones I’m considering are:

  1. Don’t let the sub-floor of your health rot away before you notice what’s happening
  2. Don’t allow the mold of in-compliance make you sick
  3. A constant dripping can warp a floor, don’t ignore the dripping, and allow that leak to destroy your future health
  4. Look for the signs and catch it early
  5. Don’t hesitate to commit to yourself

Make the commitment, be engaged, and as they say “put a ring on it.” You’ll be glad you did!