I’ve been letting the HDM editors know that if I see the word “empowerment” in any copy they send my way, I’ll kill them.

Not that the word is meaningless—it’s just that it’s inaccurate in about 99 percent of the cases where someone is throwing it out to explain an online function—setting up personal health records, simplifying bills, providing online transactional services, et al.—that doesn’t empower so much as service the customer.

The first definition of “empower” is “to invest with power, especially legal power or official authority,” according to Merriam Webster. Other definitions include “to enable” and “to promote the self-actualization or influence of –the women's movement has been inspiring and empowering women.”

I listed the multiple definitions because I’ll draw a line here: I think health care providers do have an opportunity to “empower” patients via the array of social media channels available to them. One example is the Mayo Clinic’s Facebook page, which numbers more than 82,000 “likes” and provides a forum for inspirational personal stories, medical updates from caregivers and other interactions: I was just reading a post from Kathleen Sunshine O’Brien about her double mastectomy and her sisters’ struggles with breast cancer. And Tracy Granzyk Wetzel recently wrote a feature for us about how social networks are being used to match people up with clinical trials and offering care options to many who thought they’d run out of them. Those examples seem to fit under the “to promote the self-actualization or influence of” definition of empowerment, but even that smells a little bit like pop psychology. But for lack of a better term …

Few leaders or organizations seem to be drawing the distinction between empowerment and customer service. Partly that’s because there still seems to be a latent fear in the health care industry of talking about customer service, perhaps because the term is devoid of the compassion many organizations are trying to market.

It wasn’t until the last couple years that some hospital leaders and physicians started talking straightforwardly about customer service as competition heated up and patient satisfaction scores became increasingly important. I think those and other leaders have come to the realization that if they can’t improve their customer service, then they certainly can’t put patients in the decision-making driver’s seat, as we’re told they’ll have to be in the new age of health care. And most patients who don’t get convenience from their health providers won’t hesitate to seek it elsewhere: a 2011 survey by Intuit found that fully two-thirds of surveyed patients were willing to “fire” their physician and switch to one who provides online services such as appointment scheduling and lab results access.

All too often the word “empowerment” enters the room during an interview, and when it does I know I’m in trouble. While some facets of patient-facing technology implementations might possibly be considered an effort at empowerment, most of what’s going on doesn’t--when you drill down into that empowerment, you find that you’re often really discussing online appointment reminders, scheduling, prescription refills requests, bill payments … basic consumer services, offered (with the exception of prescription refills) by businesses from nail salons to airlines to movie theaters.

Most of the patient empowerment efforts underway are really aimed at providing convenience, not empowerment, and at the same time let businesses cut costs and become more efficient (that’s the other rub—“empowerment” connotes a degree of altruism or noble purpose, which is not really applicable here). And while I can’t in good conscience report that these and other services are “empowering,” I’m thrilled to hear and report on them nonetheless, because as a patient I appreciate what a difference it makes for me to be able to conduct business with a health providers as easily as I can use OpenTable for restaurant reservations.

I’ve also found there’s more difference than simple word choice between organizations that talk about “enabling” or “informing” patients as opposed to “empowering” them. Facilities whose leaders seemingly avoid using the word “empowerment” seem to do so because they view the function of their online services as conducting transactions and providing specific information, as opposed to efforts that try to take a fuzzier, quasi-holistic approach.

Perhaps that makes it easier for them to internally keep their eyes on the customer service ball. I, like all patients, do want compassion from health providers. But I also want do take care of the business side of our relationship as efficiently as possible. Like it or not, that’s a component of the provider/patient connection.



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