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Kate Gilhooly, right, sits with her son, Michael Gilhooly, in a patient room at Toronto East General Hospital Feb. 21, 2012. (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)
Kate Gilhooly, right, sits with her son, Michael Gilhooly, in a patient room at Toronto East General Hospital Feb. 21, 2012. (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)

Globe Editorial

Better patient engagement: crucial to future of health care Add to ...

Engaging patients is the big new idea in health. Though it seems obvious that patients should be involved and actively taking part in their own care, medicare has been in trouble so long that this change is seen as a revolution.

A Commonwealth Fund Survey of 11 countries found Canada falls in the middle in patient engagement for primary care – 48 per cent of Canadians feel involved and actively participating in their care – with New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland at the top, with 68 per cent, 63 per cent and 59 per cent respectively.

More broadly, the Health Council of Canada released a report late last month, calling for the inclusion of the patient voice when designing, planning and delivering health-care service. The patient experience, it says, should be measured at all levels. It went so far to say that patient engagement is crucial to the health-care system’s future.

“If this is to really take hold, it has to take place in the physician and family team offices,” John Abbott, the chief executive officer of the Health Council of Canada, said in an interview. “There has to be a direct connection to an outcome – not more process, not more numbers - literally more results.”

Research has found that patients feel more engaged if they can pick up the telephone and call the doctor’s office for answers. They also feel more engaged when someone follows up with them on test results.

It’s a different view of the world. The closest, best spots in hospital parking lots are often reserved for doctors and administrators but, from a patients’ point of view, shouldn’t some be set aside for those requiring immediate access, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy or some other serious treatment?

Many are homing in on wait times to improve satisfaction. A few hospitals are trying to improve the patient experience with better hospital food. Some are doing internal surveys trying to figure out where to start.

A good place to begin is with improved communication. When a plane is late, passengers are told why – a mechanical problem, or ice on the wings. When a patient waits hours for an appointment, rarely is any reason given. Wasting a patient’s time is not only discourteous, it can erode engagement.

This new movement should not be seen as a daunting task but a matter of doing what’s right. The path may not be immediately clear, but it begins with good communication, empathy and responsiveness.

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