Patient empowerment can unlock the benefits of self-care

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Opinion: Patient empowerment can unlock the benefits of self-care

By: Kawaldip Sehmi, CEO, International Alliance of Patients' Organizations

Self-care activities are an essential component of patient-centered health care systems. The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”

At the International Alliance of Patients' Organizations, we see self-care as an imperative tool for advancing universal health coverage by reducing the burden on overstretched, understaffed health centers.

We believe that patient empowerment and health literacy are the key to unlocking the full benefits of self-care, and are working to usher in a new era of patient-centered health care, wherein health systems are designed, organized, and deployed with the patient at the center. Research bears this belief out: studies evaluating patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease reveal that increased health literacy leads to increased self-care behaviors and improved treatment adherence, respectively.

To allow patients to make autonomous decisions and embrace proactive behaviors toward controlling their health and health care decisions, it is critical to help patients and individuals access health information and education, intertwining the concept closely with health literacy. The soon-to-be-launched self-care readiness index will fully examine the links between patient empowerment and self-care.

Promoting empowerment as a process, governments and health systems can drastically facilitate the adoption of self-care practices. A few critical steps include: 1) making national commitments to improving health literacy; 2) allowing patients to access their own health records easily — ideally, in digital form — to increase their knowledge of their own health conditions and readily pull up details on diagnosis and treatment plans; and 3) including modules on health, hygiene, and first aid in public school curricula.  

Making nationwide commitments to improving health literacy is particularly important to overcome the challenge of reaching remote rural populations. Our experience in many low- and middle-income countries shows that deploying community health workers with a deep knowledge of the local culture and needs can relieve pressure on traditional health care resources, complement large-scale health campaigns, and foster self-care practices among potentially underserved populations.

For example, Thailand established its village health volunteer program more than four decades ago to strengthen primary health care through health education and self-care support. The program is overseen by the department of health service support under the Ministry of Public Health. While the original intent was to support maternal and child health, the program’s mandate has expanded to include noncommunicable disease prevention, screening for cervical cancer, and community health promotion campaigns, improving health outcomes and patient empowerment alike.

Digital health solutions are another powerful tool for advancing patient empowerment. The uptake of self-care practices such as at-home monitoring of chronic conditions increased physical activity, or the use of over-the-counter medicines or supplements of relevance to acute health concerns has seen an uptick. 

A poll by the Medical Group Management Association showed that 59% of responding medical practices in the United States have invested in technology to improve patient engagement in the last year, with the understanding that self-care is a critical piece of patient-centered care.

A study by the United States Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology also confirms that patients are keen to access their health records digitally. Across the country, 40% of patients across the country have already been offered access to their electronic health records, and 81% of those individuals find the information they accessed useful.

When patients have the ability to access their own electronic health records, it effectively shifts the center of gravity of an individual’s health care from the facility to their home. Such a shift is illustrative of the promise of patient-centered health care — with on-demand access to health records, patients are able to monitor their health, and share relevant health information with family members and other health care providers, such as pharmacists or other community-based clinicians.

When this unprecedented, on-demand access to personal health information is paired with a robust set of health literacy resources — including earlier on through school education — we can expect patients to fully embrace self-care and step into their essential and central role within health care continuum.