The other week, as I sat on the stage as part of a panel session at the HIMSS conference in Brisbane, a term kept getting thrown around that had me squirming in my seat. It was not said with any malice – in fact I believe it was being used under the perhaps misguided idea that it is represents positive and empowering language. But as I sat there and the term was being used, almost with abandon, I knew that we were going to have to have a chat about it. As per exhibit A:

Exhibit A

Activated patient? No. Just no.

When the moment was right, I took a breath. I’d been asked to comment on the current My Health Record situation, and whether I thought it was something that would benefit people living with chronic health conditions. ‘Before I answer the question, can we just consider the term ‘activated patient’ and how it is being used here today – and often in other contexts too. I’ve heard from people on the stage and in the audience use the term ‘activated patients’. I’m really not a fan of this term. In fact, I think it is really quite problematic.’

Activation is something that is done to something. Think Pete Evans and his activated nuts. Or yeast when making bread or cinnamon buns. Or my pink debit card that came in the mail with a sticker across the front telling me how to activate it. Pete Evans’ almonds were just passive little nuts before he decided to activate them. And before the warm water was added to the yeast, it was just powder sitting in a sachet. My pink card was simply a piece of plastic before I called a number, pressed a few other numbers once the automated message was played and agreed to a heap of terms and conditions, making the card able to work.

Those inanimate objects had something done to them to become activated – it didn’t happen on their own. Beforehand, they were passive.

I was not ‘activated’ to become a participant in my own healthcare. I was not given permission to lead the agenda of how I want to engage. I chose the people I would see; the health service I would use; the devices I wear strapped to me. I have never been a passive participant in my healthcare – or any other aspect of my life, for that matter. I have always been active. Of course there are times that I struggle with motivation and may be less active and pro-active, but getting out of those times was never an exercise in activation by others.

The idea that people become activated because they are given the opportunity reeks of the typical paternalistic attitudes that are still rife in healthcare.

Look, we can have a long discussion about the ‘consumerisation’ of healthcare, and how that is what is to blame for terms such as this. It is business lingo and while many think it probably refers to people being in charge of their health, it actually suggests the opposite.

Words that suggest something is being ‘done’ to a person utilising the health system are not empowering. They are not putting the person at the centre. They don’t indicate that the person is driving their care.

The term ‘activated patients’ provides a narrow interpretation about how a person is in charge of their healthcare, because it always is used to highlight people who are loud advocates for themselves, walking into every appointment with a list the length of their arm of things to discuss, therapies they want to use. But not everyone wants to do healthcare that way. Just because someone prefers – and chooses – to have a healthcare professional drive the direction of their care does not necessarily mean they are not ‘activated’.

Also – consider this: if a person can become an ‘activated patient’, that means there must also avenues for them to become a ‘deactivated patient’. That’s certainly not being person-centred. In fact, suggesting that we become something only because we have been given the right to be that way is the opposite of person-centred.