Improving Outcomes by Empowering Patients: The Empirical Case for Patient-Centered Care

By Michael Young

As healthcare institutions work to meet the triple aim of reducing healthcare costs while improving quality of care and population-wide health, efforts to expand the role of patient involvement in clinical decision making have gained appreciable momentum.  Interest in increasing patient participation in clinical decision making and goal setting is premised in large part on the notion that greater patient involvement can improve health outcomes by ensuring that treatment plans align with patients’ interests, abilities and sociocultural contexts.  A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology adds to the growing body of empirical research supporting these efforts, suggesting that the very act of allowing patients to choose between treatment alternatives can augment the efficacy of treatment by enhancing patients’ sense of personal control.  By giving patients more opportunities to exercise autonomy at times when many are inclined to perceive their circumstances as well beyond their influence, healthcare providers can help to restore patients’ sense of self-governance and optimize patients’ perceptions of their situations and the medical care they receive.

The idea that empowering patients to choose between treatment options might itself contribute to better health outcomes invites clinicians to rethink how to approach formulating and conveying treatment plans to patients.  Whereas traditionally some clinicians might have conceptualized their roles as experts whose responsibility is to design therapeutic plans on behalf of their patients, the principle of patient-centered care encourages providers to regard patients as associates in developing shared plans to advance and sustain health.  This paradigm of care and the distinctive stance that it demands of clinicians is poetically captured by a letter penned by novelist John Steinbeck to his personal physician, in which he incisively relates “What do I want in a doctor? Perhaps more than anything else—a friend with special knowledge.”

Effectively transitioning to this horizontal model of therapeutic relationships will require careful planning and implementation.  Indeed, boosting patient involvement in clinical decision making may prove increasingly elusive as medical knowledge continues to grow exponentially complex in substance and scope.  As such, to realize the promises of patient-centered care, clinicians should work to develop concrete plans and quantifiable measures to operationalize the ideal of patient engagement within the context of day-to-day practice.  As a first step in this direction, healthcare providers might consider ways to deliver complex biomedical knowledge to patients and surrogates in ways that are more accessible, timely and actionable.  By coupling enhancements in patient education with efforts to promote patient involvement in clinical decision making, clinicians can play a pivotal role in maximizing the efficacy of healthcare innovations and delivery systems of the future.

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