Helping Patients Become Empowered Helps Us All

FILE - This Jan. 30, 2012 file photo, an Aetna benefits card is photographed in Surfside, Fla. Aetna Inc. annoucned Thursday,
FILE - This Jan. 30, 2012 file photo, an Aetna benefits card is photographed in Surfside, Fla. Aetna Inc. annoucned Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, that its third-quarter earnings rose 2 percent as lower-than-expected health care use and revenue gains helped the insurer trump Wall Street expectations. The Hartford, Conn., company recorded a $96 million pretax benefit in the third quarter because claims left over largely from the previous quarter came in lower than expected, which allowed the insurer to release money it had held in reserve. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

A recent article by Daniel Weintraub in discussed a report from Langer Research Associates based on a survey of "poor and near-poor" Californians. More than 1,000 people aged 19-64 with incomes of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level were surveyed. The report absolutely validates what those of us who work in federally qualified health care centers already know -- information, particularly in health care, is power.

Our community health centers are located in South and Southwest Los Angeles, where we have been established for nearly 40 years. Last year, our organization, T.H.E. (To Help Everyone) Clinic, Inc. was awarded the Gold Seal of Approval in ambulatory health care from The Joint Commission at the same time that it awarded us the designation of a Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH), a distinction presented to organizations for excellent care, concern and communications with patients. Ours is one of few community health care centers nationwide to be awarded both of these designations.

What we've discovered is exactly what the survey results indicate. People who feel connected to their health care provider and have a continuity of care are more likely to be engaged in their own care, which, says the article, "typically leads to better outcomes." People connected to their providers tend to ask more questions, follow their doctor's orders more thoroughly and generally feel they have more control over their own health.

According to the survey, 83 percent of well-informed respondents feel they play a role in their own healthcare, compared to 55 percent for those who think they lack information. Feeling informed, notes the survey, is a stronger predictor of a patient's level of engagement than education, income, gender, race or ethnicity, language, or type of facility they use.

Why is this validation of the significance of an informed patient important? Because one way to control health care costs is to help patients be informed and participate in making decisions about their own health care. It really is a form of preventive care. Our job is to help patients get well and to stay well. According to data provided by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), a national nonprofit, T.H.E. Clinic saves the greater Los Angeles health system more than $15 million a year. Much of that savings comes from helping our patients remain well enough to avoid costly trips to hospital emergency rooms.

Multiply that number by the more than 1,100 federally qualified community health care centers in the U.S., and that amounts to a huge savings in health care costs. Providing health care, especially preventive health care and health education, as most federally qualified health centers do, is a humanitarian effort to insure that the "poor and near-poor" receive the care that we all may need, but it also is one of the most effective ways to reduce health care costs.

When a patient is empowered to make decisions about his or her health care, we all benefit. Helping individuals learn how to be responsible for their own health will do more to lower health care costs that almost anything else. Ask anyone who works in a community health clinic. It's obvious to us.