Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer


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Understanding and motivation from another angle

Kathleen Gillett from programme partner Dorset Macmillan Advocacy writes in the second of two posts about how our peer advocates can support older people affected by cancer achieve voice, choice and control in their cancer journey:

Whilst getting to grips with the notions of ‘health literacy’ and ‘patient activation’ that I read about in a report by Macmillan Cancer Support I went on to think about how health literacy and patient activation might interact and found it easiest to use a graph.

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So, person A has a high level of health literacy but a weak level of patient activation.  They know and understand a lot but lack motivation to move forward.  Person B has very strong patient activation but is hampered in decision making by lack of knowledge and poor understanding.  Person C has a balance represented by their position on the dotted line.  Their level of health literacy and patient activation are sufficient to allow them to move forward without one impeding the other.

What can independent advocacy support potentially do for persons A, B and C?  Provide emotional support to build confidence and source practical help to reduce barriers thus enabling person A to strengthen their patient activation (and move closer to the dotted line). Source information in an appropriate format and create opportunities for discussion to check understanding with person B thus increasing their health literacy.  Help person C to maintain their balance and grow in both knowledge and confidence throughout their journey (travelling up the dotted line).

There’s no right place to be on this graph, just as there’s no single right way to handle a cancer diagnosis.  In reality persons A, B and C will have their own views on what help they need and the role of advocacy is to empower them to express those views.  They can be supported to move in a particular direction only if they have expressed the wish to do so.

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What of people with both low health literacy and weak patient activation? Older people may be more likely to be in this situation with the risk of low general literacy from limited educational opportunities, having to contend with multiple long term conditions that sap time and energy and having only patchy social support networks.  Tailored empathetic peer advocacy support that comes to them at home and stays with them for as long as needed can nevertheless help them to achieve voice, choice and control on their cancer journey.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy

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Leave a comment

‘Health literacy’ and ‘Patient activation’

Kathleen Gillett from programme partner Dorset Macmillan Advocacy writes in the first of two posts about how our peer advocates can support older people affected by cancer achieve voice, choice and control in their cancer journey:

I recently read the terms ‘health literacy’ and ‘patient activation’ in a report by Macmillan Cancer Support and found them useful labels for ideas that had been floating about in my head. 

Let’s talk about it: Improving information and support describes the role of health literacy and patient activation in a chapter on Improved Communication.

‘Poor reading and comprehension skills are not always taken into account when providing accessible information and support, with serious implications for health inequalities and outcomes. While the problem of functional literacy remains a huge challenge, it is possible to be fully literate and yet health illiterate. Health literacy concerns the ability to read, understand and act on health information, as well as navigate the health and social care system.’

Practically, low health literacy can impact on patients in a number of ways. These include their ability to follow treatment plans, seek support, participate in consultations, understand performance data, understand the implications of provided information, and communicate their own values and needs. Individuals vary in their level of patient activation – the measure of a person’s skills, confidence and knowledge to manage their own health.’

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It helps me to relate theory to practice and I thought of two people that we supported in the early days of Dorset Macmillan Advocacy.

The first advocacy partner described herself as having been ‘a poor scholar’. She disliked written information and kept hospital paperwork out of sight. You could say her level of general literacy was low.  Her health literacy or her ability to understand her condition, her treatment plan and its implications risked being affected by her general literacy.  She knew that verbal processing of information through discussion worked much better for her.  She had been able to ask a health professional for a translation into plain English ‘Does that mean…?’  With her advocate she was able to discuss her condition and the implication of treatment options at several key stages of her journey. She said that having an advocate also boosted her confidence.

The second advocacy partner sought to increase his level of health literacy. He undertook extensive internet research into his condition and travelled to see a specialist.  He also had a very strong level of patient activation.  In other words he was strongly motivated to be actively involved in clinical treatment decisions and make lifestyle changes that he judged to be beneficial to his situation.  However his responsibilities as a carer presented a physical barrier that also put him under huge emotional strain.  His advocate worked with him to put arrangements in place that permitted him to move forward with his own treatment.

The two people described had different cancers, different personal circumstances and different personalities but both benefited from advocacy support which is always tailored to each individual’s needs and situation.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy