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Why Patient Education Is Vital for Engagement, Better Outcomes

Patient education is key for engagement in pre- and post-care management, chronic disease management, and preventive care access.

The healthcare industry has made many efforts to become more patient-centric, especially through its push for better patient engagement. However, in order to improve patient engagement, providers need to understand patient education.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), patient education is “the process of influencing patient behavior and producing the changes in knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to maintain or improve health.”

Providers can use patient education strategies to better inform their patients about their own health and wellness, the care management strategies necessary to achieve that health and wellness, and the best practices for navigating the healthcare industry.

For example, providers might use patient education strategies to help patients prepare for a particular procedure, ensuring they have completed any necessary tasks before getting into the practice. Providers may also consider patient education strategies to help patients take care of themselves after a procedure.

In the chronic disease management space, patient education helps with patient self-management. Most chronic disease management happens outside of the healthcare facility, so patients who are knowledgeable about their conditions and the steps they must take to stay well will see better outcomes.

Finally, patient education is essential to helping patients navigate primary and preventive services by informing patients both of the schedule for screenings or vaccines and the importance of accessing those services.

When healthcare organizations and providers can successfully deploy patient education strategies in each of these domains, their patients may become more empowered and ideally become involved in achieving better clinical quality outcomes.

Pre- and post-procedure patient education

As healthcare organizations across the country have begun digitizing the appointment scheduling and patient intake process, they have found a new tool for patient outreach and education.

A patient who has scheduled a procedure like a colonoscopy, which requires some dietary preparation beforehand, might receive text messages reminding them to fast before they head in for the procedure.

In June 2021, researchers wrote in JAMA Network Open that sending a series of nine text messages with pre-care patient education yielded optimal preparation for colonoscopies. Text messages are about equally as effective as having nurses call patients with the educational material, the researchers found.

That patient education is also essential upon discharge for specific procedures. Patients who have undergone particularly invasive procedures, like outpatient surgeries, need to know how to care for themselves when they get home to prevent hospital readmission. Educational efforts should also loop in hired or family caregivers, most experts agree.

Discharge patient education should focus on:

  • Medication instructions
  • Care management or techniques to meet clinical needs
  • Individual patient needs or circumstances
  • Potential symptoms of side effects patients can expect

By outlining these education areas, healthcare providers can equip patients, and their caregivers, with the knowledge to manage care at home. That at-home care management can help support not only better outcomes but also stronger patient activation and empowerment.

Patient education and chronic disease management

Just as patients need strong education for pre-care and post-discharge actions, they may also need instructions for chronic disease management. Patients managing diabetes, for example, will need to know how to measure their blood sugars, how to intervene when they feel their blood sugar drop, how to use certain health IT like continuous glucose monitors, and how to manage lifestyle needs like diet or exercise plans.

When patients don’t have high health literacy—or the ability to understand, engage, and act upon health information and which patient education seeks to boost—there can be negative health consequences. In 2020, researchers from the Mayo Clinic found that heart failure patients with lower levels of health literacy saw higher hospital admission and mortality rates.

"Identifying health literacy as a factor that affects health outcomes and measuring its effect on patients with Heart Failure is essential to allocate more resources for, and research on, interventions to improve health literacy,” Lila J. Finney Rutten, PhD, an author of the study and professor of health services research in the Department of Health Sciences at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said in a press release about the study.

Patient education strategies can help ameliorate that risk, separate data has confirmed. In 2018, a study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association showed that just 45 minutes of patient education can improve chronic disease management. A program out of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine tapped second-year medical students to conduct 45-minute patient education sessions to support disease management.

The researchers found the education improved self-monitoring and insight, positive and active engagement in life, and emotional well-being.

Patient education helps chronic disease management because it informs and involves patients in both the care instructions and lifestyle changes necessary to keep adverse outcomes at bay. Healthcare providers should complement patient education with patient motivation, helping individuals pinpoint the factors that will genuinely compel them toward wellness.

Patient education and navigation, preventive care

Finally, healthcare providers can use patient education to support adherence to preventive care services. Preventive services, like screenings or even getting the annual flu shot, are critical to ensuring a patient does not develop a chronic or acute illness, or at the very least detect that illness early.

In doing so, providers can offer less-intensive care at a lower cost. Early detection of pre-diabetes, for example, allows providers to encourage simple lifestyle changes to stave off the full illness. That is typically less costly than high-acuity mitigation strategies.

But to ensure patients adhere to those screenings and other prevention measures, organizations need to both tell them about typical screening timelines and educate patients on the importance of screening.

Most healthcare organizations use a combination of broad marketing techniques and individualized patient outreach to do this type of education. Patient education campaigns can use email marketing lists and hospital or clinic websites.

With individual patients, organizations can send notifications not just signaling a care gap but also emphasizing the importance of filling that care gap.

Healthcare organizations may consider health IT vendors that ease this patient outreach process. Although some providers can do manual data extraction and outreach, that is time-consuming and prone to human error. Health IT can automate this process, ensuring every patient receives educational messaging.

Healthcare organizations should work with both marketing and clinical personnel to develop these patient education materials. Experts have advised that education should be palatable but still informative for a broad patient population.

For example, in Jackson, Mississippi, Children’s Medical Group used automated patient outreach tools to schedule adolescent COVID-19 shots. The practice’s executive director, Chuck Ray, wanted to compel families to get the jabs but knew patient education would need to work within the state’s political climate.

“We started giving the COVID vaccine here to 12 and up and we've done some pretty large campaigns based on that and targeting 12-year-olds and older, and then trying to, again, provide educational material and information about the vaccine and benefits and all those things,” Ray explained.

“Particularly in our state, there certainly is a lot of resistance to the vaccine,” he pointed out. “We were definitely more cognizant of making sure that messaging was something that was not too over the top and that would be taken well by either side.”

This careful approach allowed Children’s Medical Group to build goodwill with its patients, ultimately creating the trust needed to get families to get the shot. Healthcare providers may consider applying that principle to other preventive services, using patient motivation and trust to help individuals understand the importance of prevention.

Key patient education strategies

While patient education may be used for many patient engagement purposes, several standard features characterize good patient education. Healthcare providers may consider:

  • Written patient education materials available in numerous languages
  • Patient teach-back
  • Provider empathy
  • Patient motivation
  • Education follow-up
  • Patient health literacy levels
  • Social determinants of health barriers

Healthcare providers can help patients become true partners in their care by using effective patient education. Patients who are activated and engaged in their health and wellness will be equipped to manage their care at home, helping to achieve better clinical outcomes.

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