Welcome to the first segment of our 3-part Empowerment series, where we'll take a look at how patients can become more empowered health care consumers, while health care providers can empower their patients to heal faster. Be sure to catch part 2 of the series, Disempowering Patients through Fear, Coercion, and Force, as well as the third segment, On the Journey towards Patient and Provider Empowerment.
For all of its quirks, gifts, and challenges, the availability of the Internet has created a new opportunity in healing that previously did not exist. If information is power, then the Internet – long crowned the “information superhighway” – provides both patients and health care providers a compelling platform for empowerment. Whether we choose to access this information, and what we do with it, however, could be the difference between an optimistic patient who gets better, and a despondent one who gives up.
Just as to empower means to enable or give ability to, taking away someone’s power means to disable them, to take away their ability to do something. Think of the ramifications of ability versus inability when it comes to health care and healing. It could be a matter of life and death.
There are usually two different ways that patients use the Internet.
Occasionally a patient will research their symptoms online before heading to see their provider. They might then say, “I think I have skin cancer,” or, “I’ve been really thirsty lately. Do you think I could have diabetes?”
More often, however, patients turn to the Internet when they’ve been diagnosed with a disease, especially a more serious condition such as cancer or an autoimmune disease. The diagnosis – and lack of information from the provider – has scared them, and they want to know what they are dealing with. Then they either can take that information back to their provider, seek a second opinion, or begin to take steps on their own to start the healing process.
Unfortunately, many health care practitioners pooh-pooh a patient who has done research online. They’ll tell their patient, “You don’t have that disease” (without looking into it or explaining why), or, “Don’t believe what you read on the Internet,” when what they really mean is “Don’t believe what you read on the Internet if it disagrees with my own belief system, knowledge, and abilities.” While some patients might not be deterred, others will give up. They’ll relinquish their power right back into the hands of the provider, and all of a sudden, their outcome becomes more bleak.
Here’s the deal. Patients want to know about their choices and treatment options... ALL of their options, not just what was taught in medical school ten, twenty, thirty years ago. They want to know about conventional treatments, alternative treatments, and complementary treatments – those that serve to lessen the negative side effects and stress of the disease and/or its treatments. They want to know what works, what doesn’t, and what’s prescribed simply because that’s been the standard of practice for decades even though we really don’t know if it’s effective (i.e., radiation therapy).
How I use the Internet to empower my clients and myself
As a health care practitioner, my favorite part of the Internet is that when I have a question about a condition with which I am not very familiar or simply want to research something, within 15 minutes, I can
- have a deeper understanding of the pathophysiology of the disease/issue (how it affects the body);
- read 4 or 5 different abstracts of studies on that condition (and decide which ones I want to read in full);
- learn about current treatments and controversies surrounding those treatments;
- and get a clearer picture of the root cause of that condition – why it appeared in the first place.
I then feel empowered as a practitioner and educator, and my clients become empowered because they know I’ve done my homework, they have a better understanding of their condition, and they know what steps they need to take to get better.
For instance, I recently had a client who came to me frustrated because her doctors would only tell her to keep taking prednisone, a medication to suppress her immune system, for fear that weaning down would cause an exacerbation of her condition. They gave her no other treatment alternatives. I spent 15 minutes researching the pathophysiology, how prednisone is used for that condition, other treatment options, and why the condition likely developed. In the process I learned that the prednisone was a controversial treatment for that condition, did not have a beneficial effect on long-term outcomes, and worst of all, was likely causing some of the same symptoms it was supposed to prevent. I also gained a greater understanding of why she developed the condition (probably because of a recent flu vaccination, but that’s a story for another blog).
When patients are entrusted with knowledge presented in an empowering way, they simply heal faster, because they are more willing to take the necessary steps, such as diet modifications, that can put them on the path to wellness instead of long-term chronic disease. I love it when my clients have done their own version of health care homework and come to me full of ideas.
Not only do health care providers owe it to their patients to stay up-to-date on the strengths and weaknesses of current practices, which is greatly simplified by the Internet, but they need to give patients the respect they deserve both when they ask for options and when they seek them out on their own. Patients and providers who use the Internet to empower themselves with information can determine the difference between health care and disease management.
And seeing that good health is the gateway to everything else life has to offer, I’d say that’s a pretty important distinction.