The Patient Perspective: 5 Ways Healthcare Providers Can Partner with Afib Patients

Mellanie True Hills, Speaker and CEO, StopAfib.org
Decatur,Texas

Mellanie True Hills, Speaker and CEO, StopAfib.org
Decatur,Texas

So many things in this world are better when done together. When I worked in high tech, we had a saying: “Outsource to the customer and have them like it. ”That applies to patients as well. Doctors may fear a loss of control when partnering with patients, but they need to get over it — especially when dealing with atrial fibrillation. Once healthcare providers and afib patients team up to help treat the condition, they both reap the benefits.

When dealing with a complex condition such as afib, this type of partnership is crucial. For example, research has found that many healthcare providers may downplay the significance of afib. Yet, the effects of afib can be profound. The typical afib patient has a lower quality of life than those who have had heart attacks. A successful healthcare provider-patient partnership can help better the life of the patient and improve care. 

Creating a partnership between healthcare providers and patients is the key to finding the best long-term treatment. I’ve seen and heard the impact and importance of such partnerships. Since founding StopAfib.org, I have been fortunate to talk with many of the leaders in the afib medical community. But just as revealing have been the thousands of conversations I’ve had with afib patients. We’ve discussed medications, procedures, symptoms, and living afib-free.

One topic that continually arises is the healthcare provider/afib patient relationship. Some patients tell me about how their condition is minimized and treatment delayed. Other patients have shared stories about how healthcare providers helped guide them through treatment options and methodically worked to find the best alternatives. A lot of doctors are frustrated by the difficulty and complexity of dealing with afib patients (some even say that afib is the bane of their existence), but it doesn’t have to be so hard and frustrating. Here are some ideas that may help make afib easier for you and your patients. From all those conversations, I’ve gathered these five ways healthcare providers and patients can work better as a team.

  1. Empower patients with a simple question. One of the toughest jobs a healthcare provider has is assessing the depth of information each patient would like to hear. But it’s easier than we might think. A simple question such as “What concerns or questions do you have today?” at the start of an appointment or discussion can provide clues as to what level of information the patient needs. If a patient has sophisticated questions based on medical journals, then that’s a whole different conversation than if the patient has no questions or doesn’t know what to ask. This simple question can provide so many clues as to how to approach the patient. If a patient doesn’t know what to ask, then perhaps additional probing questions can help elucidate what the patient knows and pinpoint what is needed. From this, you may know whether it’s appropriate to go back over things that may not have registered previously. Having empowered patients is a good thing — embracing their needs can save you work.
  2. Don’t fall into the “patients are dumb” trap. There is sometimes a perception among clinicians that patients aren’t able to understand their condition, or that they really do not want to know more about their condition. In truth, many are just too intimidated by the white coat to ask questions, or don’t feel like they know enough not to sound dumb. Surveys frequently show that afib patients lack knowledge of their condition, but that could be because no one has taken the time to explain it, or more likely it has been explained too technically or with jargon that patients cannot understand. Communication is a two-way street — if a patient doesn’t understand, perhaps it was not explained clearly.
  3. Ask about the effects of the condition. As healthcare providers, you’re probably used to hearing about symptoms and linking them to treatments. Yet, more asking and less telling benefits both healthcare provider and patient. Going a little deeper and hearing how afib affects a patient’s life may lead to better treatment. For example, if a patient mentions that she’s so winded from afib that she can no longer ride her bike or exercise, then that can tell you that being active is important to that patient. Such a fact can influence the type of treatment you help the patient choose. Also, asking other quality of life questions, such as how the patient feels about having to alter her eating or activities because of medications, will also clue you in to treatment options. Some patients may also just think they’re getting old, rather than suffering the effects of afib. With a few simple follow-up questions about the condition, you can help determine age-related issues versus afib-related issues. 
  4. Don’t dismiss or diminish patients’ fears. Acknowledge patients’ concerns, and try to help them deal and find ways to overcome them. Let them know that it’s normal to be fearful when they are first diagnosed, but over time they will learn how to deal with afib and will eventually feel more in control and less fearful. Share information that will help patients overcome some of their fears. Early in a diagnosis, this may mean more visits until their fears have been addressed and they are feeling more in control of their afib. Discuss when to go to the emergency room, or strategies to convert to normal rhythm. Address what kinds of things could happen so that they have a plan for when (not if) they do happen. Feeling in control instills an ability and confidence to be able to deal with afib.
 

 

  1. Be straightforward about what patients can expect. Afib is a complex condition, and patients need to know what to expect and when to contact their healthcare providers. Thoroughly review any side effects of medications, because for some afib patients certain drugs may make them feel worse than the condition itself. And when considering procedures, thoroughly assess the chances of success and the possibilities of having to do a follow-up procedure. When you’re straightforward with patients, you’ll also gain insight into how they would like to work with you. Some want you to direct them and don’t want to know the details, and others want to know every detail so they can make their own decisions. Then, in the middle are those who want to share decision-making with you. Having an open, two-way relationship with a patient will help you determine that level.

Better understanding and communication can make dealing with afib easier for healthcare providers and patients. These five tips can be a starting point. To ease the healthcare provider workload of explaining the condition and supporting patients, check out and refer patients to these StopAfib.org resources:

  • Get Started Learning About Afib Guide (http://bit.ly/LearnAfib) is for those new to afib and provides an explanation of the condition, including what causes it and how it’s treated.
  • Patient and Caregiver Resources page (http://stopafib.org/resources.cfm) is for those more advanced patients who are seeking information — it has links to everything from Afib Guidelines to patient blogs, along with information on related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea. 
  • Discussion Forum (http://bit.ly/forum-howto) is for those wanting emotional support and to share experiences with other afib patients.