The Spondylitis Association of America (SAA) is the patient organisation in the USA for people like me. Its vision is of “a world free from the pain and disability of ankylosing spondylitis and related diseases.” and its mission is:
To be a leader in the quest to cure ankylosing spondylitis and related diseases, and to empower those affected to live their lives to the fullest.
It provides great information about ongoing research, and advice from medical doctors, researchers, dieticians, physiotherapists, and more. Currently I find it the best source of the latest information for patients and carers affected by Spondyloarthritis.
So imagine my delight when I was offered the opportunity to present at the March 2023 SAA Storytellers event. Together with four other patients we shared our experiences with the Spondylitis community in the USA and many others worldwide. The whole event is on YouTube. If you want to jump to my presentation, it starts at 12:22.
Patients need carefully checked and up to date information. Especially now, as healthcare systems struggle in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has put a big strain on healthcare services. I believe that self-management, shared decision-making and advocating for our own needs will be essential components of effective healthcare in the future. The screen shot below gives you an idea of the wealth of resources which the organisation offers.
The RheumaCura foundation, of which I am a co-founder, aspires to a similar vision and wants to bring that focus on patient-centred research to Switzerland. We work to:
Raise awareness about the need for and value of patient-focused research in rheumatic disorders
Ensure a strong patient voice in research into rheumatic disorders
Influence the research agenda in the interest of people with rheumatic disorders.
With SAA we have great role model of how to empower and inform patients. To follow RheumaCura’s work in Switzerland, subscribe to our newsletter on our website, or follow us on LinkedIn.
John Milton, the English poet, wrote these lines in the 1660s in his epic poem Paradise Lost. It was a time of failed revolution, religious repression, and endemic plague sweeping through the land where there were no vaccines, effective protective measures, or intensive care units.
I am often reminded of his words, and they give me hope. Thankfully today in Switzerland few of us know the terrible suffering of those who have lost loved ones or are chronically ill as a result of the pandemic. Recent discussions have been about whether we can go skiing, or if the trams will still run. For most people SARS-CoV-2 is an inconvenience rather than a life-threatening illness. Nevertheless, the pandemic is causing huge suffering in the world, and it helps me to remember that pandemics are nothing new, that normal life will indeed return.
That’s why, in the middle of the pandemic, I and three companions launched an initiative for more patient-centred research into rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases. In May we established a foundation called RheumaCura. You can find out more on our website.
At the time of founding RheumaCura I wondered if we shouldn’t be addressing this immediate crisis. Milton reminds me, that these times will pass, and the challenges to solve will still be there. Better treatment and finding cures for rheumatic diseases is still important and there’s much to do.
Our quest for more patient involvement in health care does perhaps have a link to the current crisis. Overcoming the pandemic is slowed because not enough people have been vaccinated. In Switzerland a vaccine is readily available for all, but a significant proportion of the population do not want it. This may be now leading to an unparalleled health crisis in Switzerland, which according to the health experts would be entirely avoidable. If we’ve learned one thing from Covid-19, it’s that the public health authorities are powerless to beat the pandemic if the people do not support their initiatives.
The reasons why people refuse vaccination are complex, but one important aspect must surely be trust. Mike Ryan, head of the health emergencies program at the World Health Organization stated recently: “What’s shocked me most in this pandemic has been that absence or loss of trust,” he said of people’s unwillingness to follow the advice of public health leaders and the containment policies set out by governments.
People who don’t have confidence in health experts or substantiated scientific evidence, or democratically elected government authorities, or the media, will not have faith in information provided by these sources. They succumb to fears without any scientific basis. The American scientific journalist, Tara Haelle, writes thought provokingly about the reasons for vaccination hesitancy, about its long history, and why nobody should be surprised.
However, even among the vaccinated majority, a common perception is that health care is strongly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, health care providers such as gigantic hospitals, and corporatist bodies such as the associations of health insurers. The Swiss system is highly complex, hierarchical, and not easily understood by outsiders. Patients often feel like objects in a huge and powerful industry, where they are by definition vulnerable. More trust and cooperation could be generated in the health service if it were closer to its citizens. An obvious way to do this would be to listen to and involve them more, and enable them to be more active.
A health care system in which the patient’s voice is heard at all levels would provide better care, and furthermore, it would also increase trust and encourage compliance with public health care advice. Patient compliance with health care advice is always essential for the best outcome, and we have never seen it so clearly as in the pandemic.
“We cannot rest until there are Patient CEOs in every healthcare organisation around the world” Michael Seres 1969-2020.
“We cannot rest until there are Patient CEOs in every healthcare organisation around the world” Michael Seres 1969-2020.
And now the Covid-19 crisis…. Even before the pandemic started, health systems worldwide needed reform. The challenges vary: changing dynamics of demography, rising costs and overpricing, shortages of qualified healthcare staff, false market incentives and poor governance, corruption, and fraud. The results are inadequate access, poor quality and/or high costs. The general perception is that current health systems must reform, because projected social, environmental and economic developments will make them unsustainable.
One useful learning from Covid-19 is that without the support and cooperation of the public or patients, health systems are powerless to stop this pandemic. Patients and the public will have to be part of the solution.
This is an interesting and important insight. The history of health care has been characterised by unequal relationships, or what has been called “institutionalised paternalism”. The Doctor Knows Best, presents the solution, which the patient then adopts. Since Hippocrates the patient has been the problem to be solved by a health professional in a system created and run according to this philosophy.
As an economist I have learned that the market for health care is characterised by numerous “failures” where supply and demand do not meet to produce the best outcome. One of the main problems is information asymmetry. If you buy apples on a farmers’ market, your demand for apples depends on how much you need and what you are prepared to pay for the apples on display. You can get this information. However, if your knee hurts, it’s hard to know what you need. Unfortunately, it is generally the supplier of the treatment who will give you that information. A surgeon might say you need surgery, a clinician recommends pills and a physiotherapist says you need some exercises. Each specialist will tend to recommend a solution around her or his core knowledge. How can the patient process this information and judge, which solution is best?
Therefore, when supply dictates demand, because health care professionals decide on treatment, the result may not be optimal for the patient. Another characteristic of health care, which impedes a good result, is that the patient doesn’t usually pay directly for the treatment chosen, and therefore has no incentive to look for value for money. Additionally, in many health systems, including Switzerland, salaries of senior health professions are often linked to turnover: more complicated medicine = more salary. All in all, the chances are significant that the treatment decision will be guided by other motives than the best patient outcome.
As a patient with a long and complicated medical history of chronic diseases this has been my experience on several occasions. If I am not listened to, or not taken seriously, or treated like a faulty object, terrible errors and oversights can and have occurred, which affected my health dramatically. As a patient advocate, I have also been witness to the sad stories of others, who for many different reasons have been failed by the health system.
Both approaches show weaknesses in the health care system from different perspectives, but they both point unequivocally to greater involvement of patients in decision-making. Patients are not just a “liability” in health care, but also an “asset”. They are not just the problem to be solved, they can be part of the solution.
If I think back to the way I was treated even 15 years ago, I believe that a paradigm change has started. There is way to go, but today patients are generally treated with more respect, with consideration for their feelings and acknowledgement of their suffering.
Treating patients better also opened the path to recognising that collaborative patients can contribute to their own health and well-being. A plethora of terms has emerged, which reflect these developments: “patient voice”, “lay involvement”, “patient empowerment”, “health literacy”, “patient centricity” and “shared decision-making”. Personally, I like the concept of “shared decision-making”. In health care I need the knowledge, experience and advice of a specialised health expert, but I want to share responsibility for and participate in those decisions, for which I ultimately carry the consequences. I want to be in dialogue with health professionals, who recognise that I live with my diseases 24/7, and therefore I also possess valuable knowledge and expertise in managing my care, which a health professional seeing a patient for a single consultation every few months, cannot acquire.
That patients can take an active role in their care is now accepted wisdom. Most health professionals make a genuine effort to meet individual expectations and needs. I hope that health care reform will also encourage, empower and educate patients themselves to rise to the opportunity of taking a more active role in their own care, rather than adopt the passive role expected of them in the traditional care model. There seems now to be consensus, that developing real dialogue would result in better care outcomes than paternalism.
Patient involvement in individual treatment such as “shared decision-making” leads to better outcomes, when it is adopted. However, health systems (as defined by the WHO “all the activities whose primary purpose is to promote, restore and/or maintain health”) are still a long way from reflecting patients’ needs. Their power structures reflect a complex interplay of many different interest groups – except the patients. Patient involvement is at most a patient council, which is generally unpaid and without formal responsibilities. Some institutions enable feedbacks, such as questionnaires, or scrutiny in the form of an Ombudsman. Current patient involvement in health systems is tokenism.
In the pandemic we must rethink. I believe that patient empowerment in health care can not only improve personal outcomes, it is the logical next step in the paradigm change needed to meet the challenges facing the health sector.
According to the WHO, Health Sector Reform involves “changing the rules of the game and the balance of power within the health sector.” One day it will seem unbelievable that health systems were once run without using the knowledge and experience of users. I believe that representatives of the patient perspective should be working alongside managerial and clinical leaders at strategic and operational level to drive change in health systems. The principles of “shared decision-making” should be applied at leadership level because patient leadership in health care would improve it, through better governance, transparency, and accountability.
This vision probably seems as absurd now, as the ideas of empowered patients were just a few decades ago. It has huge implications for the existing power structures. But it is a necessary step towards a health system where patient health and well-being is the uniting aim, and where space is made for love and compassion.
As the visionary patient leader, Michael Seres, said, “As patients we can’t wait for the system to change, we don’t have time.”
We are all patients sooner or later. In a pandemic, anybody might be in intensive care next week.
Who Patients Leaders are exactly; what would qualify them to take a role in improving health care services; how they could do this, and where this model has been implemented will be explored in my next blogs.