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Patient engagement is a term that’s kind of difficult to define.

The meaning of “patient engagement” has expanded across the healthcare industry, and it’s necessary for providers to understand what it really means if they are to be successful at a time when consumerism is at the forefront of healthcare.

According to the US National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, patient engagement is one of the top resources in healthcare that is underutilized and a potential “blockbuster drug.”

If patient engagement is of such great importance, why do we have a difficult time providing a clear definition of what it is?  How we begin to understand it? Are there different definitions for each patient?

Definition of Patient Engagement

Let’s begin by taking a look at a recent study published in Patient Education and Counseling. The authors argue that the definition of patient engagement is this:

“Patient engagement encompasses levels of participation/ involvement in care according to individual desires and capabilities, partnering with providers and institutions vice maintaining the power hierarchy, and increasing the confidence and skill levels of patients. When all four of the attributes are present – personalization, access, commitment and therapeutic alliance – then the full import of the meaning of patient engagement may be brought to bear throughout the range of healthcare settings.”

These four attributes provide evidence as to why brand reputation for healthcare organizations is so important. If a patient is engaged in her own health, she will be searching for healthcare providers who provide the best quality of healthcare in each attribute. She’ll find this out from research, which includes talking to family and friends, reading online reviews and healthcare systems’ websites, and through her own experiences.

Here are the definitions of each of the four attributes, according to the authors:


Personalization is about ensuring that providers accommodate the patient based on unique needs and circumstances of the individual patient, according to the study.

The authors write, “Assures that the interventions conform as closely as possible to the unique desires and circumstances of the patient. This includes efforts at shared decision-making and tailoring information and resources to the patient’s level of receptivity based on interests, capabilities, and life circumstances.”


Access “refers to the ability of the patient to obtain information, guidance and tools to secure consistent, high-quality appropriate care. This includes patient functional literacy as well as institutional resources adapted to the patient’s geographical location, cultural background, and socioeconomic level.”


“Pertains to the cognitive and emotional factors that empower the patient to exploit health resources available. Commitment is demonstrated by the patient’s efforts over time and is more inclusive than simple motivation that may waiver according to changing circumstances. It is driven by intrinsic cognitive or emotional forces that may be stimulated through social support, intellectual resources, or any means that encourage behavior change that leads to practices that improve the patient’s status.”

Therapeutic Alliance

“Incorporates elements of the patient-provider relationship including quality of the clinical interaction, communication, empathy, or mutual understanding.”

The term patient engagement was introduced in the 1990s, according to a study. The use of the term has increased in recent years, tripling between 2010 and 2013 in Web of Science. This is in part because of reimbursement by the federal government when health information technology is used to “enhance patient engagement.”

The Patient Has A Choice

Dr. Adrienne Boissy, chief experience officer of The Cleveland Clinic, wrote out questions regarding both patient engagement and patient experience.

For one of the engagement questions, she wrote, “Engagement means interacting with something, so what and who is the patient interacting with? The options include his or her own health, a clinician, the healthcare system, a community, and/or technology. This context matters and defines the measurement.”

The patient has a choice about how much she wants to be engaged in her health, so the extent to which the patient is engaged is decided by the patient. What if the patient has a disease with an unknown course and doesn’t want to be constantly reminded of the disease? With this uncertainty, she will have her own way of engaging with her health.

No matter how much the patient chooses to be engaged, providers can make accessibility into all areas of engagement easier to create better overall experiences. 

Megan Wenzl

Megan is the Associate Editor for ReviewTrackers. She's a writer who is committed to finding useful information to help your business succeed. Megan holds an M.A. in journalism from Columbia College Chicago.


  1. Ursula L. Torres

    Providers and patients working together to improve health. A patient’s greater engagement in healthcare contributes to improved health outcomes, and information technologies can support engagement. Patients want to be engaged in their healthcare decision-making process, and those who are engaged as decision-makers in their care tend to be healthier and have better outcomes.