The research is conclusive: Empowering patients to become advocates for their own health—be it informed disease management or shared decision making when it comes to treatment—creates a better patient experience and outcome. But what about when it comes to older patients? Are they, too, being fully engaged in their healthcare decisions?

Not always. And it’s a missed opportunity.

According to a study published in the journal Medical Decision Making, the healthcare system often fails to meet the needs of a rapidly growing segment of the population—those age 80 and above.

“Such gaps between the services provided and what really matters to the patient suggest that the process by which we make healthcare decisions with elderly adults is not centered on their individualized needs and preferences, a central part of what determines decision quality,” wrote the journal authors.

While the paper focuses on the U.S. system, that gap is just as real here in Canada and often trickles down to include anyone defined as a ‘senior’. Assumptions about low health literacy and the old adage that doctor knows best contribute to the problem, but times are changing.

With medical innovations and new digital capabilities rapidly emerging, there’s never been a better time to empower patients of all ages to be advocates for their own health. Failing to do so is a missed opportunity—both for the good of aging patients and for Canada’s healthcare system.

The argument for empowering older patients

Older adults are Canada’s fastest growing demographic and the biggest users of healthcare resources. Seniors use relatively more services per capita compared to the rest of the population, especially services related to diagnostic and therapeutic procedures (four times more), major surgery (five times more) and hospital care days (10 times more), according to Healthcare for an Aging Population, a study published by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Big picture, there are an estimated 1.6 billion people aged 50 or older in the world, and that number is expected to double over the next three decades. Since the turn of the century, there has been a 56% increase in the population aged 65 and over in Canada: life expectancy at birth is now 82.25 years, and 20.8 years at age 65, according to Statistics Canada. Thanks to improved healthcare, as well as a growing awareness of what it takes to live and long and healthy life, people are living longer and (for the most part) in better health.

Older patients take control

Being old isn’t what it used to be and the word itself can be a bit of a misnomer. When someone is labelled as “older” stereotypes tend to emerge. Too often, old is equated with less competent or frail, but in reality aging Canadians are debunking those stereotypes.

Many are embracing technology and other health-related tools in an effort to stay healthy or effectively manage health conditions. Increasingly, both patients and their caregivers—be it spouses, children or friends—are eager for resources that enable them to engage in healthcare management and decision making. Healthcare professionals and other stakeholders who ignore this shift risk missing the mark.

Older patients are no longer passengers in their health journey, but rather active participants.

Patient outcome versus patient experience

“Canadians are living longer; but at the same time, seniors face a variety of health conditions that are oftentimes chronic complex and require coordination across multiple caregivers,” according to the Healthcare for an Aging Population study.

This emphasizes the needs for stronger collaboration between industry professionals, healthcare providers, patients and their families to facilitate improved disease management, optimal treatment and—ultimately—a better patient journey.

There’s a disparity between ‘patient outcome’ often spoken about among healthcare professionals, and the reality of the patient experience. When it comes to older patients, in particular, it’s crucial to recognize that they often have priorities that don’t always align with the notion of a successful patient outcome. A high-risk heart surgery that ‘works’ and requires months of rehabilitation might be the right option for a 45-year-old, but the same isn’t necessarily true for an 85-year-old.

Image by Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay

That’s why it is crucial to educate and empower patients to be advocates for their own care. Healthcare professionals need to understand the values, wants and needs of individual patients in order to evaluate truly successful outcomes.

To make this work, patients and their families should be involved in the creations of patient care tools, stakeholder partnerships and experiential insights. The goal for medical community should be to build practices and resources that foster engagement, collaboration and true partnerships with patients for improved healthcare, disease management and treatments.

We’re here to help. CONNECT was born of a need to fill a gap in the healthcare system. From our extensive experience working with the medical community, and on a personal level navigating the healthcare system for family members, we recognize the disparity between ‘patient outcome’ often spoken about among healthcare professionals, and the reality of the patient experience. Tell us your vision and the gap you’re looking to fill, and we’ll customize a solution to meet your unique needs.

Contact the CONNECT Communications team today.