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Patient Engagement and How to Improve It

Updated Oct 23, 2023

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Carlos Soto
Contributing Writer at
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The way patients engage with their healthcare is changing, largely due to the advent of medical software solutions and their ability to streamline secure communication between healthcare providers and patients. High levels of patient engagement can not only improve healthcare outcomes, but also keep practices functioning smoothly; when patients are engaged, their information stays up to date, which reduces the need for staff to ensure information is accurate. This guide offers everything you need to know about patient engagement in modern healthcare.

What is patient engagement?

Patient engagement is the process patients undergo to proactively participate in their own healthcare and within the healthcare system. The Center for Advancing Health reinforces this view by expanding the definition to include the actions individuals undertake in an effort to gain the most benefit from a healthcare provider or from healthcare services. A study by Health Affairs deepens this definition by looking at patient engagement as patient activation, a process that healthcare organizations play an active role in.

Specifically, the Health Affairs study states that patient activation – which they define as an underlying urgency to monitor and proactively take measures to manage one’s holistic well-being – can also be seen as a push toward a deeper level of involvement that only occurs when a person understands their importance in the process of their care. The same analysis also discusses the important role accumulated healthcare knowledge plays when attempting to improve patient participation in the healthcare system.


The best medical software can help you improve patient engagement by introducing patient portals and secure messengers between patient and provider.

Why patient engagement is important

The swell toward advancing patient engagement is fairly straightforward: Active participation carries the potential to improve patient outcomes and possibly extend lives. But research also shows that patient engagement may reduce costs. The New England Healthcare Institute recently published a study that estimates the potential savings at over $290 billion in the U.S. That same study also highlights the potential that patient engagement has on closing the gap in the quality of care received. 

When exploring patient engagement, the focus is often on the measures that healthcare professionals take to deepen the involvement with patients. Yet effective patient engagement requires a larger paradigm shift regarding the way healthcare professionals understand and approach the patient process and experience. Effective patient engagement involves reassessing the decision-making approach and general attitude toward healthcare systems and includes focusing on simplification and communication when it comes to activating patients. 

This approach highlights the significant challenges in achieving patient engagement and focusing on the issues that must be overcome to drive higher proactivity. This approach also includes an understanding that even after achieving a higher level of activity, a significant amount of responsibility and risk for healthcare providers exists. Yet, despite all challenges, there are steps organizations and healthcare systems can take to mitigate the challenges of achieving effective patient engagement. 

How can healthcare providers improve communication?

As health researchers Judith H. Hibbard and Jessica Greene mentioned in a recent study, “Emerging evidence indicates that interventions that tailor support to the individual’s level of activation, and that build skills and confidence, are effective in increasing patient activation. Furthermore, patients who start at the lowest activation levels tend to increase the most.” 

Their analysis concludes that policies and interventions aimed at “strengthening the patients’ role in managing their health care can contribute to improved outcomes and that patient activation can and should be measured as an intermediate outcome of care that is linked to improved outcomes.”

That means meeting patients where they are in their healthcare journey, rather than talking above their heads.

Simplifying healthcare information for patients

At the highest levels, the two most damaging obstacles to achieving patient engagement are complexity and the attitudes that healthcare professionals exhibit when discussing and providing care – including poor or inadequate communication. For example, National Institutes of Health studies show that patients and families face more complexities for symptom management, medications and other healthcare issues than in previous years. 

These tasks were often performed by professionals during longer hospital stays, and, as a result, many patients and family members often find themselves unprepared to manage their current healthcare situation. A national survey by the Center for Advancing Health found that 12% of respondents believed that they could remain passive with regard to their care, and almost 30% lacked the basic facts and understanding of treatment requirements. These studies point out the need to educate and simplify to the best of their abilities the treatments that patients undergo. 

Physicians play a big role in driving the conversation concerning patient awareness and hold a big influence over patient health. In order to best leverage this capability, physicians need to convey to their patients that they share in the decision-making process. This ensures that patients are not passive regarding their care. 


Walk a patient through their medical chart if possible, explaining the most relevant sections in simple language.

Strategies to to improve patient engagement

There are several key risk management strategies that improve patient engagement. Begin patient engagement through providing a welcoming and inclusive environment, not only with patients themselves, but also with their family members. This is where proper attention to communication and time is established. 

1. Educate patients about their healthcare.

Secondly, it is important for clinicians and doctors to assume that all patients need a better understanding of the information shared with them – especially as it pertains to maintaining and improving their health. Within this approach, it is essential to use plain language and easy-to-read fonts in documentation. 

The third tool is to imagine where the patient is coming from and what they feel like at the moment of care. Encourage patients to use the patient portal to view their lab results, or send additional information about their medication to them in their secure inbox. This could prompt a patient to get more engaged with their health care.

Tools like patient portals and the following resources can help drive awareness, knowledge and subsequent engagement.

  • Health tech: Access to easy-to-use electronic health records with patient apps and training drives interest and communication. Increased use of email drives communication between patients and providers, and can boost patient interest in treatments.
  • Peer support: When facing health challenges, patients can feel overwhelmed. Introducing a support group provides additional information and support by connecting them with those who have firsthand experience with their condition. It’s important to provide access to both online and local face-to-face support groups. 

You can better understand the most common issues that affect your patients if you maintain thorough records of your patient demographics.

2. Involve patients in decisions.

Aside from these two tools, another tip for improving patient engagement is to ensure physicians share the decision-making process. Within decision-making, informed participation helps to establish a connection between patients and clinicians, and can help clinicians work on improving communication and other engagement tactics. 

3. Employ images and charts in communications with patients.

With everytactic for patient engagement, clinicians and healthcare professionals should leverage the final tool of using visual aids when possible. Whether diagrams, images, pictures, or even videos, these tools can help make complex concepts simple to understand. Once these visual aids are leveraged – specifically in the decision-making process – patients can more easily work with their family members and doctors to choose the best treatment options. 

Some medical software makes it incredibly easy to show patients visual images, either of their lab results or trends in their health over time, or simply to include in their chart to emphasize note-taking. For a closer look at medical software that include visual tools, consider our DrChrono review, our AdvancedMD review, and our athenahealth review.

The swell toward advancing patient engagement may sound fairly straightforward, but digging deeper highlights the challenges that remain. Yet, providers, healthcare professionals and patients are more satisfied with their healthcare once they are all aligned on the risks and benefits of their treatment options and decisions. Leveraging the tools and tactics we mentioned can drive patient engagement, helping patients feel that you understand their needs and preferences. 

Carlos Soto
Contributing Writer at
After an award winning career as a technology writer with the Washington Post Company, Carlos received his MBA from Rice University and graduated from the prestigious Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Executive Leadership Program, as Vice President within Global Technology and Operations. Throughout his executive career, Carlos has led initiatives geared towards integrating customer facing and employee facing technology solutions within finance, oil and gas and the high tech sectors.
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