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The Problem With Patients As Consumers

This article is more than 11 years old.
What happens when patients are overloaded with complex medical information?
What happens when patients are overloaded with complex medical information?

The authors, Augusta Meill and Gianna Ericson, both with the consulting firm Continuum, offer several examples of patient empowerment backfiring when critical data isn't delivered with appropriate professional guidance. They write:

The "empowered patient" movement encourages patients to become hyper-informed and to take control over their care. But providing greater information, access and autonomy — so often successful in consumer settings — does not necessarily drive better care or experience. Consider these cases:

--An unexplained black-out sent a 61-year-old Boston woman to the emergency room and set off a flurry of visits to specialists to uncover the cause. Each doctor needed records of the diagnostics from previous visits. Hospital policy, however, required that patient data be released only to the patient, meaning she had to return to the hospital prior to any new specialist visit. Requiring her to control the information flow burdened her in the midst of a medical crisis.

--After years of struggling with her weight, a New York mother underwent bariatric surgery. She was inundated with information from her medical team about how she would need to change her behavior. Guidelines around when, how, and what to eat or not eat — the rules were overwhelming and constraining. Before long her weight had jumped again. For this woman, an excess of information (along with an assumption that she was prepared to absorb it) was part of the problem, not the solution.

--In a New Jersey health clinic, patients were calling 911 for minor illnesses and injuries, rather than the clinic's 24-hour line. Even when clinicians asked patients to program the clinic's number into their cell phones, 911 calls remained constant. Expecting patients to be proactive in this case was unrealistic; it took clinicians programming the number into patients' phones for them to change their behavior and reduce 911 calls, saving money and resources.

The bottom line is that patients need tools and extra support to be able to make complex medical decisions.

Readers, have you faced the patient/consumer conundrum? What works for you and what doesn't?

This program aired on January 10, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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