Thursday, October 24, 2013

Patient Effectiveness: How To Be Sick.

Here’s the frustrating thing. Schoolteachers get training to be schoolteachers. Pregnant moms and their partners can take a class on childbirth. Trained therapists help people deal with mental and emotional problems. Physicians, nurses, lawyers—all get training, years of it, on how to do their job.
Nobody teaches you how to be sick, at least nobody is in charge of it, or certifies it, or let’s you know when you are ready to graduate and do it well. In my experience, it’s a rare and special physician who will diagnose a patient with a chronic illness and then take on the additional role of making sure that the patient has all the resources needed to successfully navigate the difficult journey ahead.
This educational gap is a big reason why being sick is such a hard job. And it’s no wonder sick people often feel so lost, confused and abandoned. Our providers are pretty good, and getting better, about teaching us how to take medications. Not so good at all the rest of the challenges we face, like managing pain, fatigue, grief, work and family challenges, diet, exercise and provider relationships. If I had to name a single reason for this, I’d say it’s because the American health care system is built on the assumption that patients aren’t supposed to stay sick. We believe in cures!
Now that we face epidemic levels of chronically ill citizens and are counting the dollars this costs us, there is movement in our country to become more pro-active at helping people learn how to be sick effectively, and I am a passionate part of it. There are career paths for patient advocates and patient navigators and a national committee has been formed to establish certification standards. There are helpful books, like my own, not on a specific illness, but on the experience of being ill. There are patient support sites and forums and disease specific groups offering resources. Health care and hospital organizations are beginning to offer patient self-management training.
Even with this promising forward movement, I don’t think there is a national sense of obligation to patients. I don’t see a widespread social agreement that sick people need and deserve support they cannot provide for themselves. Effective patient education is far from a standard of care. Change can’t come too soon.

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