Cultivating patient activation through technology

Tech alone is not enough


Patient activation refers to an individual’s knowledge, skill, and confidence in managing their health and health care, according to a recent BMJ editorial. It’s recognized as a critical aspect of high-quality, patient-centered health care – patient activation has the potential to improve patient outcomes while reducing costs.

A computer graphics rendered representation of a person's knee joint. decade3d/Thinkstock

Total knee replacement offers a great opportunity to study patient activation, said editorial lead author Jesse I. Wolfstadt, MD, MS, FRCSC, of the University of Toronto. “It may help address the one in five patients who are unsatisfied with their knee replacement despite an otherwise technically sound procedure.”

The authors considered some patient activation studies that have shown positive results for cultivating activation through technology. In one, patients engaging with a bedside multimedia intervention on a tablet after undergoing knee replacement reported better pain scores, length of stay, knee function, and satisfaction with care. Another study showed patients who received automated text messages after joint replacement improved time spent on home exercises, decreased their use of narcotics, and had fewer calls to the surgeon’s office.

But “negative mobile app studies seem to suggest that when technologies are used as a passive educational intervention, patient activation may suffer,” according to the editorial. “One possible key ingredient to successful patient activation is the engagement of the health care team that is facilitated through mobile technology. ... Mobile apps and other technological interventions also must have clear goals if they are to be used successfully; and these goals are likely to differ for different patient populations and disease processes.”

Technology alone is not enough to affect patient activation, Dr. Wolfstadt said. “The key to success will likely involve tailoring interventions to individual patients and facilitating increased engagement with the health care team. You can’t just give a patient an app or other form of technology and expect it to replace the function of patient-clinician communication/interaction.”


1. Wolfstadt JI et ak. Improving patient outcomes following total joint arthroplasty: Is there an app for that? BMJ Qual Saf. 2019 May 2019. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2019-009571.

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