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4 Patient Education Strategies That Drive Patient Activation

Clinicians must understand unique patient needs to select effective patient education strategies.

As meaningful patient engagement continues to be a core priority for healthcare professionals, clinicians need a thorough understanding of patient education strategies.

Ensuring patients are knowledgeable about their healthcare is the surest method for sparking patient activation. Patients who are more knowledgeable about their health are more likely to use self-management techniques, attend their follow-up appointments, and ask their doctors questions about their care.

However, education means something different to each patient. While some patients will be receptive to educational strategies, others will need more nudging from their doctors.

Clinicians must follow a series to steps before issuing patient education materials, ensuring that the strategies employed are useful for the individual patient.

Assess patient health literacy

Before implementing any patient education techniques, clinicians must assess a patient’s current knowledge level. All educational materials will be useless if the patient does not have functional health literacy, defined as follows by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ):

“Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Healthcare professionals should leverage health literacy assessments during clinical encounters, or ask patients to complete assessments prior to appointments. AHRQ has several resources for assessing patient health literacy that can be adapted for various clinical needs.

When patients have low health literacy, it is important for clinicians to address specific problem areas. Research shows that patients with low health literacy are less likely to utilize educational and other health tools than their more health literate peers.

Educational resources should begin by defining key terms and concepts. Subsequent materials can also review health information, research suggests.

Utilize patient teach-back

It is difficult to speak of patient education strategies without mentioning the teach-back method. This technique is touted by many healthcare professionals, including AHRQ.

During patient teach-back, clinicians first explain an important concept, procedure, or self-management technique to the patient. The clinician then asks the patient to repeat the lesson in his or her own words.

Asking patients to synthesize health information and repeat it in their own words will highlight whether the patients truly comprehend health information. If the patients are unable to do so, clinicians can determine new approaches to ensure the patients understand.

“The goal of teach-back is to ensure that you have explained medical information clearly so that patients and their families understand what you communicated to them,” an AHRQ guide on the subject said. “This low-cost, low-technology intervention can be the gateway to better communication, better understanding, and ultimately shared decision-making.”

Offer educational materials in patient preferred formats

There are many different tools clinicians can use to improve patient education, from digital technologies to paper handouts. To ensure that these tools are most effective, clinicians must work with patients to determine which meet both patient preferences.

According to MedlinePlus, a health information resource from the National Institute of Health and the National Library of Medicine, patient education materials include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • One-on-one teaching
  • Demonstrations
  • Analogies
  • Graphics
  • Brochures or other printed materials
  • Podcasts
  • YouTube videos
  • Videos or DVDs
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Posters or charts
  • Models or props
  • Group classes
  • Trained peer educators

Not all tools will suit all patients, so it is important for providers to engage patients in conversations about education and assess patient preferences. Clinicians and patients should both consider how patients learn best and what is most feasible to integrate into patient lifestyles.

Additionally, clinicians should be mindful of what the patient needs to know (rather than what might be nice for the patient to know), what is important to the patient, and what the patient already knows. Doing so will avoid repetitive information and information overload, MedlinePlus says.

Lean on health technology

Health IT offers patients convenience, making it easier for them to find and store educational materials.

In the case of patient portals, technology makes it easier for patients to access health information – no longer do patients have to visit health information management departments in the hospital.

Using an online interface, patient portals allow patients to access their lab results, medical histories, and a plethora of other health information.

Clinicians who use OpenNotes, a practice philosophy where clinicians digitally share their appointment notes with patients, can offer their patients in-depth and specific health advice each office visit.

Studies have shown that patients forget up to 80 percent of what their doctors tell them during appointments. OpenNotes can help remind patients of this data, boosting patient understanding of their own health.

Research has shown that patients who read, understand, and review their own health information via the patient portal are better able to engage in their health and inform their clinicians of potential treatment issues. One OpenNotes study published at the end of 2016 found that 57 percent of patient concerns with medical records resulted in actual record changes, eventually improving patient safety and health outcomes.

Healthcare professionals can also leverage mHealth tools where appropriate. These tools range from typical informative tools to more interactive apps.

Through strong engagement, mHealth apps work to inform patients of their own health conditions, and often walk patients through self-management techniques.

Clinicians must factor in patient health literacy and the effectiveness of certain apps. When apps do not include necessary information, or are above a patient’s literacy level, they are ineffective.

Ultimately, selecting a patient education strategy is going to depend on the patient. Techniques must cater not only to a patient’s health literacy levels, but also to her preferences and unique needs. When education strategies fall short of this, they will likely be less effective.

Clinicians must first engage their patients to determine the best path forward for patient education. Using shared decision-making, doctors and patients can determine which tools will be most effective in driving patient education, and eventually improve outcomes.

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