Patient engagement in the digital era

In the not-so-old days of medicine, patient engagement used to involve things like looking the patient in the eye when speaking to them, facing the patient, asking them how they felt, and asking them if they had any other questions before ending the visit. These so-called rules of engagement have now been augmented by the computer in between the patient and the provider.

No longer are the former etiquette protocols sufficient for interacting in the digital era. Now, patient engagement includes Internet searches using “Dr. Google” for what in my opinion are typically anxiety-fueled questions that are frequently unnecessary and irrelevant and would not have been asked prior to the arrival of Internet searches.

However, the internet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and so providers have to be able to deal with this new level of interaction. Fortunately, not all patient engagement is so maladaptive.

Patient engagement is a funny thing though. It seems to be confused by doctors, staff and patients. Some people think patient engagement involves E-medicine, or rather electronic visits over secure messaging systems. I laughed the other day when I viewed a YouTube video showing a woman talking about a third party for-profit software vendor company using their technology to allow patients to pay bills online and therefore be more” engaged”. Right. That’s twistier than Presidential campaign rhetoric.

Another speaker put it well when he said that “reality struggles to keep up with the rhetoric” when he was commenting on the difficulty in defining patient engagement, yet everyone wants to use the jargon liberally.

I prefer to think of patient engagement in the digital era as being positive in several respects. I expect the patients to take an active role in their healthcare, in gaining knowledge about their disease, and in gaining knowledge about health prevention and treating ongoing illness issues. In doing so, the patient becomes empowered to take an active role in the decision-making process during the testing and treatment phases of care. This is not to say the patient should get to consult Dr. Google and then dictate what tests are being done on them regardless of what the ordering provider thinks is appropriate. I think the most ethical and appropriate response to such requests are to, first, consider them seriously; second, discuss with the patient which tests are medically indicated and which tests are medically unnecessary; and finally, to stand one’s ground in either writing or not writing for any medically unnecessary tests to be ordered.

I also completely agree with the definition of patient engagement as defined by the Society for Participatory Medicine. It says that patient engagement is a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health, and in which providers encourage and value them as full partners.

In order to get patients more engaged in participating in their healthcare, I think we need to make it fun, make it interesting, and communicate using means where the patient actually is, on multiple levels of “is”. In the case of the digitally connected patient, we should be considering communicating using the Internet, smartphones, and mobile devices such as iPads. We need to be able to make this communication valuable to the patient so that they, in turn, want more of it, and so that the movement grows.

About the author

Dr. Michael West

Dr. Michael West

Dr. West is an endocrinologist in private practice in Washington, DC. He completed fellowship training in Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. West opened The Washington Endocrine Clinic, PLLC in 2009. He can be contacted at

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