Who the Empowered Health Seekers Are

The odds are that you haven’t yet fully empowered your search for good health. I know this about you because a couple of months ago HealthCentral surveyed 2,888 of its registered members who have one of eight chronic conditions, including diabetes, and who completed the study. And in this respect at least people with diabetes are just like the people with the other seven chronic conditions.

HealthCentral CEO Christopher M. Schroeder and James E. Burroughs, associate professor of commerce at the University of Virginia, presented their findings at the DTC National Conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this month and shared them with me. After asking the people in the survey all sorts of standard psychological assessments, they found that about 30 percent of us take an active role in our health care plan. If you are in this group, one of your characteristics is that you are energized and engaged when you need to learn new tasks or master new subjects — you are what the survey calls a person with a need for cognition. If you are an empowered health seeker, the other characteristic you have is self-confidence — you have, in the formal terminology of the survey, high self-efficacy.

You can click to view the study, “Understanding What Motivates the Empowered Patient,” here. Mr. Schroeder and Professor Burroughs prepared it in association with Ted Smith, Ph.D., HealthCentral’s executive vice president for research.

My posts here at HealthCentral and your many comments are just one small corner of this huge health resource. HealthCentral is a collection of condition and wellness websites providing clinical information, tools, and mobile applications. Its sites provide a platform for more than 3,000 bloggers, 200 expert patients, and more than 12 million monthly visitors sharing real-life experiences about specific conditions.

But those who are empowered are less than a third of of the registered members that HealthCentral surveyed. These are the people who ask for treatment and prepare for their doctor appointments. Then, half fall into the “traditional mainstream” category of people who have a low need for cognition and yet have high self-efficacy. Finally, 20 percent fall in the “traditional resistant” category with both a low need for cognition and low self-efficacy.

These proportions surprised me. I had always though that most of you already took charge of your health care, working with your doctor as co-pilots or co-authors of your health treatment. But that’s just one of the survey’s surprises.

For starters, I was surprised that nobody ever did a survey like this before. “Lots of people have been talking about this concept that people are taking greater and greater control of their lives and health,” Mr. Schroeder told me in an interview. “We all know anecdotally that this is true, but we weren’t able to find any hard research or data about what is driving the empowered patient — who these people are and why they do what they do and what influence they have. We discovered that this is the first all-out investigation of who the empowered patient is, why they do what they do, and what potential ramifications this will have on health care. That’s why we commissioned it.”

This in turn presented even more surprises. Empowerment revolves much more around personality than education or income level.

This not only surprised me but it also surprised Mr. Schroeder. “That is the biggest surprise that I had,” he told me. “I had a belief that empowered people would be people who had a little bit more time available for them, a little more resources. They might have had graduate degrees or at least more education and viewed themselves in this way. And our study showed unbelievably clearly that this has nothing to do with one’s demographic or where they come from or what education they have had or how much money they make.”

They care a lot about what they are wrestling with or thinking about, Mr. Schroeder continued. They also strongly believe that they have a role to play in the outcome of things that they engage in and feel that they have almost an obligation — certainly a concern — that they not only empower themselves but also empower others. They try to influence other people to realize the benefits of stepping up and taking control of something that is as important to them as their health.

The researchers were curious about how the empowered health seekers could motivate or influence others to empower themselves. The learned that a patronizing approach doesn’t cut it. Talking down to them backfires.

But empowered health seekers can influence a good part of the 50 percent in the traditional mainstream category by appealing to their need for understanding and their desire to be addressed in a direct, straightforward manner. What sways them is common sense.

But making a human connection is just as important as the logic. People in the second and third categories can learn to take control of their health not only from the experts but also from people who have been there and are trying to figure out how to live their lives on a day-to-day basis. “That’s my biggest take-away,” Mr. Schroeder says.

The exciting thing is that these second and third groups of people — many of whom are already taking steps in the direction of the first group — get encouragement from the empowered health seekers, he says. “I would be willing to put down a significant bet that if we do the study again in two years you will see the empowered group grow rapidly as that central group gets more and more confident as part of the reality of what it means to take on their health. If other studies prove anything, it is that the more people are engaged, the more that people are helping each other, the outcomes are almost always better. Almost a third are already proactive, but well over half are stepping up on ways unimagined even a few years ago. And more and more are moving that way.”

Empowered health seekers are at the forefront of change in how people can take control of their own health. The key phrase that Mr. Schroeder uses is that “people are helping each other.” You can made a difference not only in your own lives but also in the lives of many other people who have diabetes.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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