Is the Phrase “Patient Engagement” Overused?

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Is the Phrase Patient Engagement Overused

James Dias, Founder & CEO of Wellbe discusses how he believes the term “patient engagement” is headed towards passing its expiration date.

There is a point when a word or phrase becomes so overused, generalized and convoluted that it essentially becomes meaningless to its audience. For example, here are the 9 most overused corporate buzzwords and clichés (think outside the box, win-win, team player, etc.) I believe the term “patient engagement” is headed towards passing its expiration date and becoming stale (if it’s not there already).

John Sharp wrote in March on the HIMSS blog that patient engagement was “The Blockbuster of HIMSS14.” Jan Oldenburg, patient engagement strategist, wrote in her blog that “HIMSS 2014 was the year that Patient Engagement finally reached mainstream status at HIMSS, both in the education track and on the show floor.”

I agree that the phrase was heard and seen everywhere, printed on every booth display, promoted heavily in the agenda, and used in every pitch to investors and providers alike. The big EMRs trumpeted that they can do patient engagement. Meanwhile, so did:

  • the independent portal designers
  • the patient survey providers
  • the appointment reminder solutions
  • the social media advertising agencies
  • the customer service call centers
  • the printed patient education publishers
  • the video streaming services
  • the website programmers
  • the mobile app makers
  • the telehealth service providers

Patient engagement as a phrase is starting to get as tired as “meaningful use,” but at least the latter has government regulation to back it up. Now that “patient engagement” has been determined as a buzzword, it’s a free-for-all for every company to paste on their advertisements and to try and increase their website’s search engine optimization for this keyword.

Is it all patient engagement… or is any of it patient engagement? How do providers determine if the tools listed above will really lead to the definition of patient engagement as given by the Center for Health Affairs: “Actions individuals must take to obtain the greatest benefit from the health care services available to them”?

Let’s drop the buzzwords and the clichés and get down to it… Instead of “patient engagement,” let’s just call it help. How is this solution going to help the patient? If providers come at their patient engagement strategies from their patients’ point of view rather than their own preferences or the vendor promises that are sold to them, the true outcomes they are seeking are more likely to be realized.

The first key to success is to flip the provider point of view. Don’t ask, “How can we get patients to do what we want?” Getting the participation you need will not come by trying to force patients to interact with you. When it comes to engagement, patients always want to know, “What’s in it for me?” So, here are the questions you should be asking instead:

  • What kind of help do my patients want?
  • How/when/where do they want this help to be provided?
  • How do I make it as easy as possible for them to get the help they need?

Here are four themes that are likely to come back in the patients’ responses to these questions:

  1. Make it convenient for me to interact with you how and when I want to
    For some people, it’s all about removing the middleman. Let me message my doctor directly by email. Let me access the information I need online. For others, they like the comfort of being able to call and speak to an expert when help is needed. Be sure you are catering to the needs of both audiences with multi-channel engagement.
  2. Extend connections beyond the clinic or hospital
    A 15-minute appointment with you once every six months is unlikely to keep me on track.  I need ongoing guidance to follow my care plan once I’m at home on my own. Even if check-ins are automated by text, phone or email, it shows that you care and are still thinking of me. Let me link to support from caregivers or other patients like me when you are not around.

  3. Give me the tools, resources and support I need to be successful
    A folder full of paper is not enough. Instead, break down information into easily digestible pieces of information. And make the information actionable so I know what to do with it. If I don’t understand something, I’m not going to do it. Some people are text learners, others respond better to video or audio. Can you offer both?
  4. Treat me like an unique individual
    No one likes to be just one of the masses. How can you customize the patient experience to make me feel like a valued individual? This will strengthen our patient-provider relationship and increase the likelihood that I will follow your plan of care. Use my name, and please don’t make me repeat myself multiple times, whether in filling out paperwork or in conversation.

Oldenburg, primary editor of HIMSS’ Engage! Transforming Healthcare through Digital Patient Engagement, says, “Patient engagement is a long-term journey and a new way of doing business, rather than a destination with an end point. The most important part is taking the first step, and providers should pick a starting point from which to begin.”

Use the four themes as a litmus test for any solution you’re investigating. If a patient engagement solution can provide benefits in the areas above, you will know you are on the right track. If it provides real value from a patient point of view, the patients will be more likely to adopt any technology needed and use the tools provided to better their health. If it doesn’t align with their needs, you’ll find out quickly and be seeking a new solution.

With the momentum as seen at HIMSS, it is likely “patient engagement” will continue to be used as a buzzword in the healthcare arena for some time going forward. Hopefully the industry will start to sort itself out and figure out what truly qualifies as patient engagement and what doesn’t fit in this category.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Is “patient engagement” overused? Where can we go with it from here?

James Dias is the Founder & CEO at Wellbe where he leads innovations program to empower people and providers with new tools to improve health. He is also the co-inventor of the Patient Guidance System.

  • Actually, it was Leonard Kish who coined the phrase “patient engagement is the blockbuster drug of the 21st century” on the HL7 blog in 2012 (link: Kish also invokes Eric Topol’s “Creative Destruction of Medicine” in his post.

    Almost 2 years later, the healthcare industry has managed to use – actually, overuse to the point of rendering it meaningless – the phrase “patient engagement” without ever really understanding what was required to make said engagement come to pass: including patients in all parts of the care system, from policy to facility planning to care modalities to research to IT.

    Or, put very simply, learning to LISTEN, rather than just write ‘scripts, or lab orders, or scans, or whatever.

    Patients are up off their knees. Healthcare is no longer in their ivory tower, but they seem to be unsure of how to operate in this new, flatter, less hierarchical landscape. Here’s a tip: let patients help. Ask us questions about what outcomes we’re seeking, what our personal health goals are, and what VALUE we want from the relationship with our clinical team.

    Amazement – and possibly engagement, on BOTH SIDES – might just ensue.

  • A couple thoughts, James. First, your definition of patient engagement comes from The Center for Advancing Health (not the Center for Health Affairs). Second, that definition is still as appropriate today as it was on the day when Dr. Jessie Gruman and her team at CFAH defined it. That’s because its source didn’t come from those who make their money from industry, but from the perspective of actual Real Life Patients (Jessie herself is a longtime patient and activist).

    Industry has merely co-opted the terminology – and now decides that it’s just a disposable buzzword. See also:

    The term patient engagement may seem only a tired, overused, generalized, convoluted and meaningless buzzword to you and others who are not actually patients, but among the great unwashed out here who are, we didn’t get the memo yet.

  • Linda Frank

    We do tend to adopt a lot of buzzwords in healthcare, I must admit. This particular buzzword, patient empowerment, however, is long overdue. Patients have in the past and still today felt that they were innocent bystanders in their own care… after all, they’re not the expert, the doctor is, right??. It almost becomes an “us” versus “them” dilemma. My father-in-law, a diabetic, used to “be good” right before he had a blood sugar test. Who was he kidding? He was only hurting himself. Patient empowerment is about patients being responsible for and involved in their own care. I’m glad that we’re moving in this direction, whatever we want to call it.

  • John Sharp

    I think we need to prevent the term patient engagement from becoming a buzz word. As Carolyn says, using the definition from the Center for Advancing Health would be a start. And your points about keeping patient engagement patient-centric are key. Maybe on confronting a a company or marketer, we should ask the question, “What do patients think about your tool? Is it useful to them? Does it impact the patient outcomes?”

  • John, this is a great point. All these companies that claim they are providing patient engagement solutions are key contributors to the noise.

  • The issue is not one of the use or overuse of the term “patient engagement” but the attitudes of the participants in the healthcare system. It has been a long journey just to get providers to move away from a paper- based health care system to digital technology and to begin to think of the patient as a members of the health care team. It is an ongoing challenge to convince patients that they need to become “empowered” and “engaged” enough to take charge of their own health issues and have a voice in health decisions that have to be made. These are the real issues and become intricately intertwined with how patients and provider communicate and work together for a better outcome.

  • Kathy Torpie

    I doubt that anyone on either side of the bed would deny that the movement to improve healthcare delivery is rife with buzzwords. Buzzwords are a marketing device, just like the catchy jungles in familiar ads. Clinicians didn’t invent these buzzwords, nor did patients. They are the tools of marketing experts whose job it is to asses the needs of their client and then sell their product as the best way to meet the client’s needs. The problem isn’t the buzz words. It is the fact that the client, whose needs are are the target of marketing buzzwords, is NOT the patient. This disconnect from the patient as the “end user” is where the real problem lies.

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  • Sometimes, when a phrase is used, it’s because it needs to be. While it’s true that many non-HIT orgs are jumping on the bandwagon (emblazoning trade show schwag with “patient engagement” is a real UGH), to those of us involved in it, it’s still a vitally important term. Our product is an integrative medicine EMR ( and one of our cornerstones is … wait for it… patient engagement. That’s because integrative medicine physicians go into this type of medicine because they’re tired of how traditional medicine churns patients (unengaged) out like factory widgets. So, to us, we focus a lot on patient engagement, including a robust patient portal for secure messaging and appointment confirmations, the ability to reorder Rx without calling into the office, and that opportunity to take an active role in their health. I can’t even imagine what term we’d have to use if this one gets ripped out and stomped to death from over use.

  • bobnease

    Patient engagement is an unnatural act. Of the 10 million bits of information the human brain processes each second, a skimpy fifty bits are under our control. We are wired for inattention and inertia, and we point our scant fifty bits at issues that are either pressing or pleasurable… and for better or worse, most of the behaviors in which we are asking patients to engage are neither (at least not in the here and now).

    This doesn’t mean that patient engagement is hopeless, or that it’s a bad thing. But it does mean that we should all appreciate the mountain we’re trying to take when we call for greater patient engagement. And it absolutely suggests that we should thoroughly investigate other strategies for activating the good intentions that most people already have — strategies that don’t rely on ongoing engagement.

    You can read more about this take on patient engagement in an article my colleagues and I wrote for Health Affairs (at or on my website (

  • Raj Gupta

    Patient Engagement is the “Perfect Solution” for US healthcare. It will cut cost and streamline the healthcare. We people need to get involved in our health at early point.