The concept of “patient activation” is often used interchangeably with “patient engagement.” While efficient, this conflation can mask some finer distinctions between the two terms — most importantly, the fact that activating patients calls for them to be much more proactive and enabled. When an organization claims that they want to increase activation, it means they’re actively seeking to change their patients’ behavior and actions, not just their interest and orientation.

If you’re looking to emphasize or improve patient activation, it’s important to know how it differs from patient engagement.

Laying the Foundation for Patient Education Programs

As mentioned, activation is rooted in engagement. Many organizations focus on activation without first establishing a foundation of completely engaged patients. But if patients don’t understand that they have options and agency within the healthcare system, they’ll never fully be active participants in their own health.

Before establishing this foundation, it’s important to understand the patient’s motivation for seeking care in the first place. It’s been suggested by veterans of Procter & Gamble’s healthcare division that one of the best methods for connecting with these motivations is to take a marketing-inspired approach, emphasizing the fact that patients aren’t defined by their conditions and instead asking questions about the psychology of individual patients and their motivations for seeking care.

After establishing motivation, the patient is now ready to participate in a patient engagement program. These programs should focus heavily on helping patients understand the power of their decision making, as well as the reality of their ability to understand their care, make informed decisions and act as partners with clinicians and healthcare staff in working toward positive care outcomes.

Education Is Essential

The ultimate key to connecting to patients’ motivations and improving their chances of activation is education.

A recent study involved a series of qualitative interviews with 22 patients aged 50 and older regarding how they engaged with blog posts on aging. The study overwhelmingly found that patients not only chose to read articles based on their relative connection to their own individual health conditions (or those of a loved one), but also that they preferred information in a format that spoke directly to them as patients, as opposed to more clinical information geared toward other healthcare professionals. Studies like this prove that not only are patients able to learn (and to become more engaged), they’re also eager to do so.

According to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center’s Corey Siegel, M.D., patient activation is contingent upon strong patient education programs. Siegel notes, “The idea is really to understand what their preferences are and have them make a decision that matches that preference, and that physicians and providers help guide them, too.” According to Siegel, it’s not only important to educate patients, but also to help them choose the format that works best for them. This includes electronic information such as the blog posts mentioned above, but also more traditional forms of education like patient-provider conversations and resource portals, which together give patients a more comprehensive view of their treatment and care options.

An Education That Extends Beyond the Clinical

Successful navigation of today’s healthcare environment also requires an understanding of data and digital information. Overall, healthcare experts have found that patients simply aren’t knowledgeable when it comes to their rights of access to information under HIPAA, something the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT has been working to change.

Ultimately, any organization interested in moving from patient engagement to activation should provide patient education programs that focus on the whole patient, their reasons for seeking care, and their successful navigation of the healthcare system over time.

Increasing engagement is the first step in patient activation. Find out how you can use digital technology to make waiting rooms an unexpected hub of patient engagement.

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Megan Williams

Megan Williams is a consultant and writer who specializes in healthcare technology. She has over a decade’s experience in hospital revenue cycle consulting and holds an MBA with a focus on international business, as well as a degree in hospital administration. She works with growing and established healthcare B2B companies in creating work that is in touch with the latest developments in healthcare, and maintains her work at

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