Empowering Patients

Fortunately, 21st century healthcare is gradually moving away from the out-dated ‘doctor knows best’ model to one which is more person-centred. For you, as a health care practitioner, this means working with your patients - exploring what they already know, educating and empowering them to live the best they can with their conditions.

Yet, even with the best of intentions, in the midst of a busy 12-hour shift patient education can often slip way down your never-ending to-do list. And though safety must always be a top priority, if patients never get the chance to learn about their conditions, how are they supposed to look after themselves? Many will take to the internet, but as we all know ‘Dr Google’ is far from reliable. In fact, The Royal Society for Public Health’s recent ‘Moving the needle’ report highlighted how easy it is for patients to get the wrong information (in this case about vaccines and their side effects) particularly online and through social media. The report also emphasised that nurses and other front-line healthcare staff play a vital role in challenging misconceptions and educating their patients. This concept is not only relevant to nurses who are involved in immunisations, it is an approach that all health and social care staff should take. Not only will this benefit the individual through improved patient outcomes, it can in turn can help to relieve some of the pressure off

Start at the beginning

Educating and empowering your patients does not need to be time consuming, but it may involve a change in your mindset as well as the way you communicate and the language you use.

It can help to start thinking of your patients as ‘the expert,’ true they may not have in-depth medical knowledge, but they do know their own bodies and how their illness affects them. This subtle shift can help you develop a more inquisitive approach, one where you start at the beginning and find out what your patients’ current level of understanding is. Then through open conversations you can build on this foundation of knowledge together.

Open conversation

Did you have to sit in lectures for hours on end, listening to someone talk at you? Just as you are likely to recall very little of the content being spoken about, neither will your patients if you don’t engage them in a conversation, i.e. move away from telling to discussing.  

Though motivational interviewing is mainly used in the field of health promotion there are several techniques that are useful when interacting with all patients. Here are four key principles (known collectively as RULE) that can be used in any healthcare situation and will help to promote a more collaborative approach:

  • Resist the ‘righting reflex’: it is natural that you want to help your patients and be sure that they have the best treatment possible. However, be careful that you don’t influence your patients with your opinions.
  • Understand your patients’ motivations: a motivated patient is more likely to be proactive and take control of her/his health. Remember though that we are all individual and so we all place value on different things. Be careful to use open-ended and non-judgemental questions to engage with your patients.
  • Listen: listening is actually an active process and involves really focusing on what your patient is saying as well as how s/he is saying it and what is being left out of the story.
  • Empower: your role is to offer guidance and information, yet it is also to provide space for your patient to decide what is best for her/him.

When you get to the stage of informing patients about any aspect of their treatment it’s important that you know your facts. So, make sure you do your research and that you knowledge is up-to-date. Also avoid using overly technical language as that can put barriers up between you and your patient. It’s also worth remembering that one approach won’t suit everyone – as with you and your colleagues, patients will all have different learning styles. 

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