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In the Driver's Seat

Author: Mia James

A growing movement in health care is putting the patient in the driver’s seat when it comes to making medical decisions. The trend is known as patient empowerment, and according to Anne Meisner, president and chief executive officer of Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA ) in Zion, Illinois, it means making the patient an integral part of the treatment process. “Empowerment involves patients in every aspect of care so they are informed, educated, and confident to participate in their medical treatment decisions,” she says.

At CTCA this approach is known as the Patient Empowerment Medicine® philosophy of care. Patients are educated and supported by their health care teams to take an active and meaningful role in their care. “To be respected and empowered is a right of all patients,” explains Meisner. “Never is it more important to have a sense of control given back to you than when control is stripped away in a health care crisis.”

Patient participation has not always been the standard in medical decisions, as patients in some settings have had little input in their own care. According to John McNeil, president and chief executive officer of CTCA in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, patient empowerment overturns this approach: “Empowering patients with information and choices helps them regain control of what can be an incredibly overwhelming experience.” The hallmark of patient empowerment, Meisner explains, is providing care that truly serves each patient, rather than treating the disease without regard for an individual’s circumstances and wishes. “At CTCA patient empowerment is all about understanding the individual needs of each patient we serve,” she says.

According to Thaddeus A. Beeker, MD, medical oncologist at Southern Cancer Center in Mobile, Alabama, the goal of patient empowerment is to use patient involvement and education to replace despair over a diagnosis with a sense of hope. “By having an active role in their treatment, patients become enlightened as to their true situation and the possibilities of overcoming their illness,” Dr. Beeker says.

Becoming empowered

Patient empowerment is a unique experience for each patient—and in each unique health care setting. At CTCA there are certain things that you can expect from your care team. Health care providers will, for example, listen to your questions and offer thoughtful answers. They’ll also educate you about your treatment options and, if you choose to participate, include you in the decision-making process. Your treatment will be planned to meet your individual needs and accommodate your schedule. Your family members can also be involved in your care decisions, if you wish to include them.

Dr. Beeker says that he uses counseling and encouragement to empower patients in his care. To do so he educates his patients about their medical condition, their options for therapy, and their ability to take an active role in treatment. “Patients need to understand their illness and the options for therapy and participate in the decision-making,” he explains.

Patient empowerment, however, does not mean that you must take full responsibility or navigate your care without expert support. “We allow the patients and their family members to determine what level of involvement they want to take in the process,” Meisner explains. “We make sure each patient is informed to make important decisions regarding treatment. CTCA physicians and clinicians provide individualized treatment options, weighing each one with the patient before coming to a treatment decision.”

The benefits

The benefits of patient empowerment are evident in patient well-being as well as in treatment outcomes. Well-being is maintained or boosted because patients who are involved in their treatment planning retain a sense of individuality instead of losing their identity to the diagnosis. “Empowered patients have a better understanding of their diagnosis, the treatment options available to them, and a better sense of well-being,” says Dr. Beeker. And by giving patients control, the stress of losing control that can accompany a diagnosis is reduced, which allows for better healing.

“Stress can inhibit the healing process,” Meisner says. “When patients feel in control, they feel less stressed and are in a much better place physically and emotionally to focus on healing.” Patients who take an active role in their care are also likely to be better educated about their treatment options and make valuable contributions to the planning and decision-making process.

“When patients are informed and educated about their own diagnosis and treatment, they are equipped to make better choices,” Meisner explains. “When they understand and become a part of the treatment planning, there are fewer surprises and they are able to walk through the treatment journey, managing the day to day while visualizing healing.”

It’s more than personal

At CTCA patient empowerment extends beyond individual care—patients have influence that spans from program concepts to actual facility design, McNeil says. “Patients are also empowered to be a part of decisions that range from hospital program concepts to actual facility design,” he explains. “We hold weekly focus groups where we encourage patients to share their experiences and make suggestions to improve the hospital. In fact, much of what you see as you walk around the hospital comes from valuable patient and caregiver feedback.”

Empowerment made simple

The benefits of patient empowerment are complex, profound, and farreaching— from improved personal outcomes to better treatment facilities— but empowerment itself is fundamentally very simple. At the core of health care is the patient. The patient is the customer and always the guide. The method for meeting patient needs, according to Meisner, is also simple: Ask the patient. The patient will tell you exactly what he or she needs.

SIDEBAR

Ten steps to empowerment

  1. Find expert care. Choosing health care providers in whom you are confident is the first step in taking control of your care. Know your rights as a patient. Understand that you have rights, including the rights to make treatment decisions, be informed, and be cared for in a respectful and considerate way.
  2. Research your treatment options. Learn about your diagnosis— the type of cancer, stage, and treatment options. Ask your doctor about patient resources and educational materials.
  3. Learn about complementary therapies. With your doctor’s supervision, you may consider complementary therapies, such as nutrition, spiritual support, and healing modalities such as acupuncture.
  4. Expect the best. Don’t settle for less attention than you deserve. Make sure your questions are answered and that your health care team works together to provide the best care.
  5. Know that you can get a second opinion. Don’t be afraid that you’ll offend your doctor if you get a second opinion. Think of it as thoroughly researching your options.
  6. Prepare ahead. Ask your doctor about side effects you may experience from treatment and learn about ways to manage them.
  7. Set reasonable goals. Even small physical goals (like walking a bit longer each day) represent progress. Listen to your body, and don’t push it too hard.
  8. Be involved in your treatment planning. Learn, ask questions, and participate in treatment decisions.
  9. Communicate with your doctor. Make sure your doctor keeps you informed throughout treatment, and always let him or her know how you are feeling, especially if you experience new symptoms.
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