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The Empowered Patient: Improving Digital Health Literacy for All

February 2023 Vol 9 No 1

In collaboration with Kara Rayburn, Reagan LaBor, MHA, and Aicha Diallo, MPH, CHES, all with the Patient Empowerment Network

Jennifer Lessinger

Patients with cancer who are tech-savvy often use technology to help improve their health outcomes. They can use computers and smart devices to navigate the Internet and social media sites quickly and easily to access the latest information about their conditions and treatment options, find out about a potential clinical trial, and connect with friends, care providers, and support groups. Whether in the palm of their hands or on their desktops, patients can do a quick search and immediately access answers to many questions. The ways in which patients with cancer can benefit from digital technology are seemingly endless.

However, navigating mobile apps, patient portals, and social media platforms can be overwhelming and confusing for many patients, especially older patients, who didn’t grow up with the Internet, and who have not had as much exposure to such technology. Limited Internet access also means that such patients are not able to obtain valuable online health information and resources easily, and they may feel more isolated and lonelier than patients who know how to navigate the digital platforms.

Empowering Patients with Cancer

To ensure that all patients, regardless of age or technical ability, have equal access to the health benefits available online, the nonprofit organization Patient Empowerment Network, or PEN (, was established in collaboration with Pfizer Oncology and created Digitally Empowered (, a free program that guides patients through an easy-to-follow course to teach them about the basics of digital technology.

The Digitally Empowered program is available in English and in Spanish and is free to anyone who would like to take it. Although this course is geared toward older patients, it is helpful to anyone who wants to learn more about how to manage their healthcare online or get additional information about using online resources. You may be surprised by what you can learn from this course, even if you are relatively tech-savvy.

Step-by-Step Program

This course was designed to be easy to complete, with clear instructions to guide you through each step of the program; all you need is an e-mail address to get started and create a login. The course is divided into 10 parts, or modules. Each of the 10 modules takes about 10 minutes or less to complete and includes 3 steps: (1) a short video, (2) a review with a resource guide, and (3) a simple quiz to reinforce what you learned.

Digitally Empowered takes less than 90 minutes to complete, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Your progress is saved automatically, so if you need to take a break, you will pick up where you left off, when you log back in.

The 10 lessons discuss a variety of topics, including how to use the Internet; define basic online terminology; explain what a browser is and where to find it; and show you how to create profiles and passwords, and how to keep them safe.

The program also explains the different types of websites, including “.gov,” “.org,” and “.com,” which enables you to determine what websites are safe to use. Other lessons explain how to use social media sites to connect with different people, how to use mobile apps to manage health and for fun, and how to use patient portals.

A step-by-step guide on how to use telemedicine is also provided. Throughout the course, patients learn how to find the latest credible information, how to research their conditions, how to ask pertinent questions, and how to take an active role in their care and treatment. Patients also learn how to connect with other patients and support groups.

Continued Digital Skills Support

After completing all 3 steps in each module, you earn a badge, and after completing all 10 modules, you get a certificate of completion. You will also receive e-mails of encouragement after completing each module.

The program also offers continued support through the Digitally Empowered Facebook group and the Digitally Empowered newsletter. In addition, if you can’t remember all that you have learned, you can return to the modules to watch the videos again, and access, or download, the review guides at any time. A Frequently Asked Questions page is available if you get stuck or need help along the way.

Digitally Empowered is the on-demand format of PEN’s innovative digital sherpa program, in which older patients are paired with younger, “digital natives” who can help teach patients how to use digital technology to enhance their control of their cancer journey.

With the addition of the Digitally Empowered program, PEN is able to bridge the divide created by health and geographic challenges that patients with cancer face, by providing the course to patients no matter where they are located, and without the health risks that may involve face-to-face interaction for immunocompromised patients, as in the case of many patients with cancer.

Access Health Information Online

The Digitally Empowered program aligns with PEN’s mission to empower patients with cancer and their caregivers, by providing the knowledge and tools they need to boost their confidence, put them in control of their journey, and assist them in receiving the best and most personalized care available. Using the knowledge that they gain through the Digitally Empowered course, patients are then able to work with their care teams to make the best decisions about their care and treatment options.

Whether you are a patient with cancer who has no experience using digital technology, a caregiver who would like to learn more about your loved one’s disease from a reliable source, or anyone who is curious about enhancing your digital technology literacy, the Digitally Empowered course will help you to develop the skills you need to access and use online health and support tools.

Take the Digitally Empowered course, and don’t forget to share the program with anyone else who may be interested in becoming Digitally Empowered.

About the Authors
Jennifer Lessinger is a writer for Patient Empowerment Network (PEN); Kara Rayburn is Digital Communications and Engagement Director, PEN, Reagan LaBor, MHA, is Partnerships and Programs Coordinator, PEN, and Aicha Diallo, MPH, CHES, is Senior Director of Programs, PEN.

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