A patient is lying in a hospital bed with an IV in her arm. Suddenly, she gets the sensation that something isn’t quite right: a sound that she hasn’t heard before; a quick, sharp pain in her side; a question about a diagnosis; an uneasy feeling.

Should she say something? What if it’s nothing, or she’s wrong? How will the health care professionals caring for her react?

Empowering patients

Too often, patients get the impression that despite growing encouragement to speak up and ask questions, health care professionals signal that they don’t have time for discussion. Some clinicians even get defensive if they think they’re being second-guessed.

But that attitude is changing in health care; it’s a change patients should know about, will experience more often and can help reinforce.

"When patients feel encouraged to speak up, it creates a strong safety culture that leads to trust, collaboration and a better care experience."

To begin with, caregivers are striving to work as more effective teams and communicating to patients that they’re part of those teams. Patients need to provide input and feedback on all aspects of their treatment, which includes speaking up when something doesn’t sound right, look right or feel right.

Partners in care

This is about more than just "sounding the alarm" when one’s hospitalized elderly parent suddenly appears to take a turn for the worse. It is about actively participating in decisions early on and throughout the care process. As organizations engage more with those they serve, patients now sit side by side with clinicians on improvement teams, designing better care processes. Many patients now sit on hospital patient and family advisory councils to further institutionalize this level of involvement.

One concrete example: All hospitals strive to improve hand hygiene to reduce the spread of infections. (Note: It is absolutely within bounds for patients to remind any provider who’s about to touch them, who hasn’t visibly washed his or her hands, to do so.) When you see all those dispensers in hospitals and clinics, it’s not just a reminder to patients and visitors to use them; it’s part of an organization-wide effort to ensure clinicians are doing the same, frequently and reliably. It’s a collaborative effort to make hospitals safer places.

For all of this work to contribute to better and safer care, there must be complete and open communication among clinical staff that extends to equally transparent communication with patients and families. When patients feel encouraged to speak up, it creates a strong safety culture that leads to trust, collaboration and a better care experience.