Yesterday, Ogilvy held a really interesting panel discussion called “How Social Change happens in the 21st Century.” (Natalie posted a nice synopsis about it here). We covered a variety of topics regarding healthy behavior change, and discussed appropriate and effective channels of communication to reach audiences that are already bombarded with thousands of messages every day.
The “issue” of patient autonomy came up. When I say “issue,” I am not kidding. Some people in the room truly felt that patient autonomy is a major hindrance to public health. I get it. I am even a culprit. When I have a headache, I go online to see what may or may not be wrong with me. When my friends want to lose weight, they search blogs for diet plans. And my parents (they’re very young) are approaching age 50. And with age 50 comes a variety of new tests and screenings. Who do they talk to? They talk to their friends who have already gone through the “50-year-old” exams. Do we talk to our doctors about our health concerns? Absolutely. But with modern technology and an openness to discuss personal health perhaps more than ever before, we all have other ways of seeking health information.
I never really viewed all of this as negative. More channels of seeking information gives public health communicators more channels of reaching target audiences. The more ways you can reach your target audiences, the more powerful your messaging becomes. Although some of my colleagues work on campaigns that are directed toward physicians, I personally work on campaigns that are directed mainly toward consumers. I guess this is why I never saw a problem with patient autonomy.
So what is the “issue” with patient autonomy? Yesterday’s panel made me realize that health literacy is a real concern in the U.S. and finding information online, for example, does not always translate to comprehension. Furthermore, doctors go through years and years of training, and can absolutely give personal advice and the best possible quality of care to patients. When patient / physician interaction is cut down due to patient autonomy, this can be dangerous.
So what do we do about this? Well, we can’t possibly stop human curiosity. We’re not going to regulate the internet so that people can’t look up health information. We’re not going to infringe on free speech when a woman wants to talk to another woman about her first mammogram. I say…let’s roll with it. Technology isn’t going away, and neither is the basic human instinct to be inquisitive. Let’s use the many lines of information and communication to encourage patients to talk to their doctors. Let’s use these channels to encourage healthy behaviors.
Patient autonomy can be a scary thing, but in another light, it also opens doors and opportunities for those us seeking to create and implement public health programs that have lasting effects.