Updated: Aug 3, 2021
In a world where health information, for better or worse, is abundant and easily accessible, healthcare providers are in constant competition with the internet for their patients' attention. The healthcare industry places significant emphasis on seeking and utilizing evidence-based information in its clinical decision-making. Unfortunately, it is not convenient for patients to adhere to this same standard of high-quality information gathering when it comes to their health education.
Whether they don't have access to these high-quality materials or are inundated with data, it's nearly impossible for patients to know what information is considered reputable. We all know the potential dangers of turning to Dr. Google for self-diagnosis and treatment, but we still do it. So how can healthcare providers and medical associations elevate their patient education experience to come out victorious in the battle against misinformation?
1. Ask more questions.
Before jumping right into diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment education, start by asking your patient the right questions. Asking open-ended questions and practicing active listening are essential tools to help you better understand the individual sitting in front of you. Research shows that empathy is essential to developing relationships and producing a therapeutic change in healthcare. It's nearly impossible to put yourself in your patient's shoes if you don't know enough about them - that's why asking questions is immensely important! Education can fill in the gaps in a patient's knowledge - ask questions to identify the gaps and practice empathic communication.
2. Repeat things a lot. I mean, A LOT.
Remember the old marketing "Rule of 7?" A prospective buyer needs an average of seven interactions before deciding to buy. This is not unlike interactions with patients. Ultimately, as providers, the goal is to get "buy-in" to the treatment plan. Now consider delivering information to patients that are nervous, stressed, anxious, or in pain. I'd argue that a "Rule of 10" might be more appropriate with these confounding factors at play. Even under the best of circumstances, whatever you want your patient to know, you have to tell them often.
The logistics of communicating this frequently are a challenge in our current healthcare landscape. For this reason, many health systems are turning to technology. Web-based platforms and apps can be an effective way to consistently deliver educational materials to your patients in between their in-person visits.
3. Mind your words.
Words matter. This is true for all aspects of life but exceptionally so in the delivery of sensitive health information. As healthcare providers, it can be easy to forget that some of the most common words we use are new and, frankly, terrifying for patients.
Take, for example, degenerative disc disease of the spine. To healthcare providers, this means arthritis and the reduction of disc space in the context of normal aging. But after hearing that diagnosis, many patients leave the office thinking, "I came in with some minor back pain, and now I have a disease." In the absence of further guidance, the action that follows is a Google search wherein they land on some scary graphics of the spine with red, angry-looking defects.
In a scenario like this, this patient is better served by the following explanation, "you have some normal, age-related changes in your spine." The same information delivered in different words produces a much different outcome. Words that seem benign to you will not always be to your patients. Many difficult conversations occur in healthcare and require exceptional nuance. Prioritizing word choice and clarity will always help keep you out of trouble. Also, scary words or not, instructions delivered in words that a patient doesn't understand are instructions that a patient will not heed.
4. Use high-quality content with consistent messaging.
Take a look at your content library. Do you have a content library? If not, it's time to make one or find one. Professional medical organizations are great resources for applicable content. Aesthetically pleasing and comprehensive education materials are essential to help your patients continue the learning process at home. Your patient's educational experience MUST extend beyond the four walls of the clinic.
Consistent messaging from all healthcare team members is also essential for maintaining a patient's trust and streamlining their care. Be sure each of your care team members is on the same page and uses similar language to educate patients. An excellent way to make sure you deliver the same message is to have a robust library of educational materials available to your entire team. All patients should go home with some level of "homework" - otherwise, you will never be able to repeat the message enough for real learning to happen.
5. Use a multimedia approach.
Don't forget to consider learning styles in the development of your educational materials. At a very basic level, there are four main types of learners as outlined in the "VARK" model: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. Videos will best serve your visual and auditory learners. Provide access to handouts and articles for your reading learners. A journal or log is helpful for those who prefer to learn by writing. Our kinesthetic folks are likely to present the biggest challenge in many care settings. These individuals may benefit from repeating information back to you or actively practicing a procedure in the office when applicable.
Most individuals have a basic awareness of how they learn best, so one way to find out is to ask! Alternatively, have all of your most essential materials available in different formats and provide them all to your patients - they will naturally gravitate towards those that best suit their learning style.
6. "Prescribe" education and consider the delivery method.
Educational opportunities for patients can sometimes feel like an optional, low-priority component of their treatment plan. Ever leave the doctor's office with a brochure or handout and have no clue where it ended up or what it said? With the proper infrastructure, educational material can be thoughtfully "prescribed" just as a medication is. Educational content is a vital piece of the treatment plan that should not be reduced to a paper handout that winds up in the trash.
Additionally, consider how the content is reaching your patients once they leave your office. The optimal delivery method for educational materials is likely to vary based on your audience. Consider age and demographics in determining how best to deliver your content. In 2021, according to Statista, mobile devices drove nearly 55% of traffic to U.S. websites, and more than 72% of the U.S. population owned smartphones. Putting education on a patient's phone puts it at their fingertips. The easier it is to access, the more likely they are to read, review and learn.
7. Encourage active engagement in learning.
Patients are increasingly learning to be their own advocates when it comes to their care. Most would agree that this empowerment is an important shift from the traditional patient-provider dynamic. This increased involvement in every aspect of their care is encouraging patients to take ownership of their health. After all, the person most invested in the success of their health journey is them.
As a provider, you can continue to feed this desire to be involved by guiding your patients towards reputable resources and giving them a platform that promotes active engagement. Also, consider encouraging patients to get their family members and motivators involved in their education plan. Using technology to communicate with and engage with your patients actively is an effective way to maintain their interest and promote improved plan adherence and outcomes.
We can all agree that one of the most important aspects of a healthcare provider's job is to educate their patients. High-quality patient education enhances understanding of conditions, promotes adherence to treatment plans, and ultimately improves health outcomes. But the fact is, by no fault of their own, most providers do not have the time to do this. Additionally, the wealth of health content on the web can send patients down the wrong path and overwhelm them with unfounded and potentially conflicting information. Having an exceptional content library and delivery system can help fill in the gaps and reduce confusion for patients.
At Fitango Health, we have set out to do just that: fill the gaps in the healthcare experience with an interactive platform to promote the distribution of high-quality health content and actively engage patients in their care plans. If this is an area lacking in your practice - we would love to talk with you about how we can help.
Written by: Jessica Cobb, PT, DPT, Director of Business Development for Fitango Health, Inc.