How Can Nurses Contribute to Patient Engagement?

As health care becomes increasingly focused on wellness, prevention, and management of chronic conditions, the term “patient engagement” inevitably creeps into the conversation. So why is this concept important and what does it mean?

Patient engagement describes a connection between a patient and a care provider. When a collaborative, trusting relationship develops, patients often feel empowered to become active participants in their own care, working with providers to reach health and wellness goals.

One of the steps toward achieving better outcomes and providing accountable care necessitates getting patients more involved with their own health and any treatment they are receiving. A study examining patient engagement issues across several cultures found that engaged patients perceive the care they receive as being of higher quality than is perceived by less engaged patients. Notably, they also experience fewer medical errors – perhaps because an engaged patient feels comfortable challenging a care provider when something doesn’t seem right or explanations are unclear. The study also concluded that there is room for improvement in patient engagement, in every country that was studied.

So, what can nurses do to help?

Patient advocacy is key

The Nursing Alliance for Quality Care (NAQC) has released the Guiding Principles for Patient Engagement, with the goal of supporting nurses in developing patient-centered models of care. As frontline care givers, nurses are in a prime position to encourage and assist patients and family members to take active roles in acquiring information and making health-related decisions.

One of the nine core principles in the NAQC publication deals with health literacy, recognizing that it is an essential component of patient engagement. Nurses have to always be aware of the health literacy levels of their patients, and adjust responses accordingly. Patients come from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds, and it’s crucial that nurses consider this while advocating for patients.

The issue of health literacy, as it relates to patient engagement, is important because of one basic truth: patients need knowledge and skills, as well as emotional support, to participate in their own care. No one can ask detailed questions, process the answers, or search for more information without a certain level of health literacy and confidence. A system that views all patients through the same lens – for example, when teaching diabetes self-management or delivering post-op discharge instructions – and without acknowledging their different skill levels will never succeed in engaging and empowering patients. By not understanding where people are in terms of health literacy, or what their experience is with health care, care givers can inadvertently make them feel even more overwhelmed or discouraged.

This is where nursing’s role in patient advocacy comes into play. Advocacy by definition is tailored to the individual patient – including his or her cultural beliefs, fears, and past experiences. Advocacy also means, by definition, inviting patient input and participation. When nurses come across a patient who is less engaged, particularly when it’s someone who is experiencing a chronic condition, the nurse can make it his or her goal to help that person take small steps toward engagement. Provider support can make a huge difference in helping patients learn how to self-monitor, self-manage, and reach set goals.

In summary

The Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) has put together an excellent summary of strategies and interventions that have been used to engage patients and families in their care. Some of these must be implemented at the organizational level by hospital administrators and others can be effective at the individual level, between nurses and patients. It is important to remember that the ability to question current nursing practice and facilitate change is an important leadership skill for nurses at every career level.

If you’re interested in fostering patient engagement, you might also consider making it a career specialty – perhaps as a patient navigator or case manager.

As issues like patient engagement and patient satisfaction have become hot topics in health care, the field of case management in particular is expanding. In fact, it’s been said that case management, with its current emphasis on complicated cases, needs to evolve into care management, with a focus on wellness, prevention, and patient advocacy. It comes as no surprise then that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its 2010 Occupational Outlook Handbook, identifies case management as a field projected to grow faster than average.

The perfect way to build the skills you need for this specialty is through American Sentinel’s online MSN program with a specialization in case management. American Sentinel University is an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees that can empower you with knowledge and help you reach your career goals.

Learn what American Sentinel has to offer:

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