Digital Sherpas guiding older patients to health literacy

May 10, 2018
Digital Sherpas guiding older patients to health literacy

A simple idea to enhance technology skills is having a massive impact on a human level and holds untold potential for patient education.

The Patient Empowerment Network’s Digital Sherpa Program trains tech-savvy young people to, in turn, train older cancer patients to access health information online.

Currently being piloted as a one-on-one training session, the program can also be delivered as a workshop and is making a very real difference to all those involved.

Andrea Connors, Executive Director of the Patient Empowerment Network, explained: “The mission of my organization is to give people information to help them build the confidence they need to share in their health decisions.”

“To do that, we have to improve the level of health literacy that exists in the average patient. You can’t improve health literacy, if you can’t access the wealth of information available online and through social and digital channels.”

Using the internet and social media channels is second nature to younger people, but the challenges are often insurmountable for those who have not been brought up with it. It’s a very simple idea, but one that has an enormous impact.

“We train the volunteers but really they know everything there is to know already. By virtue of being a digital native, they can answer 99.9% of questions they will be asked,” said Andrea.








Education with a side of companionship

The program is incredibly flexible, and it can be tailored to meet any need – in terms of the way it’s offered, as well as what is communicated and taught.

The program was workshop-based when it started in 2016, but in its current incarnation, Digital Sherpas visit in-patients one-on-one at the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa.

LaWanda Courtney, Moffitt’s Director of Volunteer Services, said the content of the sessions was driven by the patient, but involved helping them to access the center’s GetWell Network of online resources.

“Medical appointments can be overwhelming, and patients may struggle to process all the details at the time – when to make follow-up appointments or to expect test results. This information is available on our Patient Portal, but if patients don’t know how to access it then they can’t get to it, which is stressful,” she said.

“We believe that providing the information, the conversation and the companionship of Digital Sherpas reduces the stress level of patients and their caregivers.”

It’s not just the patients who are learning

The cross-generational interaction that takes place between patient and Sherpa is a large part of the program’s appeal.

Andrea said: “Students come away from these interactions feeling good about what they can contribute, and the patients and caregivers are happy they have been able to interact with a young person and get their questions answered.”

Medical student Brittany LaMattina agreed, adding that she had learned a lot from being a Digital Sherpa.

“Whether it’s helping a patient with a particular piece of tech or just having a chat, it’s been great to speak with them, hear their stories and talk about anything that gets their mind off why they are there,” said Brittany, who started volunteering at the cancer center to “give something back” after her mother was a patient there.

“I’m about to move into a career in medicine, and this has taught me to stop and ask the patient how they are doing on a more personal level while helping them access the information that’s going to make a difference to their hospital experience.”

The Patient Empowerment Network has also learned a lot along the way, said Andrea.

She explained that while it was easy to recruit volunteers, patients needed a little more persuasion to attend a digital workshop – though once they got there, they loved it.

“One of the things that has evolved the most is how we promote it. We’ve had to really refine our message to make sure we appeal to patients and they understand what they can get from attending,” said Andrea.

For more information on the program, visit the Patient Empowerment Network’s website.

Digital Sherpas guiding older patients to health literacy

Andrea Conners is Programs Director for the Patient Empowerment Network.  Patient Empowerment Network’s mission is to fortify cancer patients and care partners with knowledge and tools to boost their confidence, put them in control of their healthcare journey, and assist them with receiving the best, most personalized care available. For more information, please visit

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