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Educating Your Patients: 10 Top Teaching Tips

By Edward Leigh, MA

Healthcare professionals spend a great deal of time educating their patients about illnesses and medical procedures. Unfortunately, several studies shave shown that this is traditionally a weak area and patients may walk away experiencing confusion, and subsequently, anxiety.

In today’s hectic healthcare environment, time constraints are the norm. We often feel rushed with little time to educate our patients. Taking the time to learn appropriate educational techniques ultimately saves a lot of time down the road. If we don’t explain it properly the first time, then patients will call back, which takes an even larger amount of time taken away from an already busy schedule.

Partner with your patient. Do not think in terms of telling your patients what do you. Offer suggestions and choices and then together come up with the best possible solution. The healthcare professional-patient relationship has moved from paternalistic to partnership.

Avoid medical jargon. Unless your patient is also a healthcare professional, speak plain English. For example, use the term "kidney" not "renal." Think about the roots of medical terms to help explain conditions. For example, cardiomyopathy literally means "heart muscle disease" (cardio = heart, myo = muscle, pathy = disease). Telling a patient they have cardiomyopathy might sound completely foreign to them. However, telling a patient there is a problem with the heart muscle sounds much more understandable.

Offer explanations during examinations. Let the patients know what you are doing. For example, you can say, "Now I am checking your lungs." This will help the patient feel more at ease as opposed to being silent. During the silence they may think to themselves, "He spent a long time examining my back, maybe there is something wrong?"

Use analogies and metaphors. These can be very helpful to explain medical concepts. For example, when explaining a colon resection, an analogy of a garden hose can be used. We can say to a patient, "We need to remove a section of your colon. Imagine a garden hose, we remove a section and then reattach."

Explain statistics using people not percentages. Saying 9 out of 10 patients do well is better than saying ninety percent of cases. People can relate to the word patients, but not as much to the word "cases." Percentages sound distant and scientific, while patients / people are more friendly and warm.

Sketch a diagram. In your office always have paper for drawing simple diagrams. Be sure the pad of paper has your medical practice / center contact information written on it. These hand-drawn sketches are very effective and patients feel special that you did this just for them. Of course, pre-printed charts and graphs and also effective.

Utilize Plastic models. These items are very helpful in explaining medical procedures or tests. They provide a strong visual element to help patients understand complicated medical anatomy and physiology. When, I was undergoing chemotherapy, I had problems with the constant needle sticks. I was told of the benefits of a Bard® Port; a device implanted under the skin for chemotherapy infusions. My oncology nurses brought out a model to explain where the port would be implanted. I decided on getting a port, which made chemotherapy a much more pleasant experience!

Avoid stress-inducing words; replace with gentler terms. Instead of using the words "deformity" or "abnormality," use the term "finding." "When we have this finding" sounds less anxiety-provoking than saying, "An abnormality was seen..." In terms of looking at our lives, we all want positive experiences. We all want to achieve remarkable things. However, in healthcare we want ust the opposite! We want our test results to be negative and unremarkable. We have to be sure that our patients clearly understand what these two terms really mean!

Use brochures. Provide written information the patient can take home. However, before giving written materials to patients be sure to carefully review the information. Are the materials written in plain English? Are there helpful visuals in the materials? Just before giving the brochure to the patient, briefly review key sections with them. Keep a pen or highlighter nearby; you may want to mark certain parts of the brochure.

Supply Resources. Provide information to help the patient understand and cope with the medical challenge they are currently facing. Think about organizations that can be of assistance, such as a local chapter of a non-profit group. Also, think about websites to refer patients. Through effective educational techniques we can help patients better understand their medical issues. This will lead to more satisfied patients and improved compliance.

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