The use of the term “empowerment” has become widespread in recent years. However, the concept is not new: it was coined in the nineteen-seventies in reference to the process of strengthening the rights and capacities of vulnerable individuals and communities, raising their confidence and increasing the role they play. According to this philosophy, human beings (and the groups of which they are members) should have access to resources and decisions that affect their lives.
Some years ago, the concept began to be applied in the healthcare sector. In this case, it refers to citizens taking a more active role in the management of their own health. The healthcare system has traditionally relegated the patient to a rather passive role: the patient was limited to receiving care, while healthcare professionals took exclusive charge of making decisions and being responsible for outcomes. Patient empowerment involves a shift in this mindset and a change in certain well-established habits within the system.
The Power of Information
An empowered patient is a patient who has the capacity to make decisions, satisfy needs and resolve problems, engaging in critical thinking and taking control over his or her life. This is achieved, first of all, through knowledge. If information is power, an empowered patient has to be an informed patient, one in possession of enough knowledge to understand an illness and its treatment. Therefore, one of the jobs of healthcare professionals is to transfer knowledge and skills so that a member of the public is able to choose among options and act accordingly.
Being able to rely on the patient means that treatments can be tailored, their safety increases and they can be adapted to each patient’s living conditions. However, the professional must be confident that the individual has a correct understanding of the information given to him or her and knows how to make good use of it. Delegating responsibility to the patient involves enabling the patient to take charge of his or her treatment with the utmost autonomy, with the guarantee that the patient is capable of noticing any problem that may arise and of reporting it. It has also been proven that placing trust in the patient has positive effects on patient recovery.
The Patient and the System
This model is less paternalistic, because it is based on the patient’s participation in decision-making, such as the decision to pursue self-care. It is also a model that would definitely contribute to easing the burden on the system, because chronic disorders consume the greatest amount of resources and naturally depend to a large extent on the care taken by patients themselves: choices regarding lifestyle—exercise, diet and adherence to medications—can directly affect the evolution of a pathology. Indeed, the degree of patient involvement is usually a determining factor in the overall treatment outcome.
Patients who are better informed and more responsible would improve the system. But how can we move from healthcare theory to practice? A first step would be to measure the real value added that patient empowerment can provide and to set in motion a shift in mindset among the public and among professionals in the sector. What is clear is that there is a need to involve patients as an active agent in the healthcare system and to strive to ensure that they are willing and able to cooperate in and take joint responsibility for their own health.