For years, the media, medical and advocacy organizations, and even politicians have been painting a picture that portrays patients as strong self-advocates for their health care, eagerly engaging in two-way dialogues with physicians, and making shared treatment decisions. But this may not always be true, according to a New York Times article about a survey that was published in Health Affairs.

Researchers conducted focus groups with 48 patients from affluent communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Most of these patients were over age 50 and either had graduate school degrees (or had attended graduate school). After watching a video about different heart treatments, these patients were asked about how they interacted with their physicians when there were treatment options that offered equivalent efficacy, but differed in side effects, cost, and potential complications.

The results showed that while patients want to be active partners in their healthcare decisions, they are hesitant to speak up about preferences for certain treatments or disagree with their physician’s treatment recommendations. Many feared they would upset or anger their physician. Instead of asking physicians for more information about treatments and diseases, they feel they must rely on themselves to find the information they need.

Can this marriage be saved?

I believe it can. Patients are looking for information on their own, which presents tremendous opportunities for healthcare marketers to fill the void. Helping physicians act more authoritatively and less authoritarian, however, is a much bigger challenge. It requires not only understanding how physicians think, but also how they want to be approached — and perceived — by their patients.

This knowledge can drive development of tools and tactics that can bring both parties together in ways that will help patients feel more comfortable about expressing their needs and desires while helping physicians feel less threatened that their authority is being questioned. Just because healthcare marketers provide patients with information, however, they cannot assume that patients will always follow through with the directions. It’s a process of change that starts by building up their confidence levels and showing them the ways they can benefit by speaking up.

Awareness is always the first step to change with any problem, and now we have it. Building dynamic relationships between physicians and their patients requires creative solutions that can evolve as needs change, and at Brandkarma, we offer that, too.