Patient engagement is a trendy term in the health technology world today. As with all trends, there’s probably more style than substance in the debate on how best to bring patients into the digital health fold. The digital health community is absorbed with concepts like patient portals, the quantified self movement and behavior modification. A quick review of who patients are and what they really want to do ultimately yields a perspective on how patient engagement strategies can be successful.

In an analog world, patient engagement is face-to-face conversation, a letter in the mail or a phone call. More important than these communication mediums is the content of that communication. A digital environment that creates new media for communication still has to improve upon the content of that conversation in order to really bring better health to the patient.

As both a doctor and a patient, I’ve seen both sides of the equation for patient engagement. In looking at the root concerns of patients, a common thread comes into play – nobody likes to be helpless and in the dark about their own health. To be fair, different people desire different degrees of illumination and control; nonetheless, just like young children who are afraid to be alone in the dark, patients need some degree of certainty to gain comfort.

That childlike fear of the dark and insecurity can come back to haunt us as adults doing our best to manage our health. Indeed, the child inside all of us wants to be comfortable and safe, despite the wisdom that comes with age. We’re all different in our phobias and comfort levels, as dictated by our own desires and life experiences. The common thread, though, is that we all have fears.

Digital patient engagement gives patients an opportunity to gain whatever level of illumination and control they may find helpful. The key is providing the opportunity as well as the capabilities to customize the degree of engagement.

It’s all about overcoming that fear and creating a degree of illumination and control. It’s about recreating feelings like reassurance, comfort, and knowledge gained from hearing a friendly voice, asking questions and getting answers that come with analog communication. Digital media must recreate those feelings and needs in digital format in order to truly help combat the fear of the unknown.

Basic, generic functionality like access to existing patient-related information is a bare minimum to impart a degree of knowledge that overcomes fear. Beyond that, the key to success becomes successfully comforting, illuminating, and empowering patients to have greater control and less fear over their health situation. After all, the more scared we are of the dark, the more we need to know a bright flashlight is within arm’s reach.

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