What Patient Education Can Do

What Patient Education Can and Can’t Do


Patient education has changed. Decades ago, doctors distributed pamphlets to patients as needed. Now, people seek instant access to information about their health whenever and wherever they want. According to 2015 data from Pew Research Center, 62 percent of smartphone owners—that’s 64 percent of all Americans—have used their phone in the past year to look up information about a health condition.

The format for patient education has changed, as well. Print materials have been replaced by videos and interactive patient education tools, thanks to advancements in health IT. Now social media is even an avenue for patient education. A recent survey showed that a Twitter support community was effective in educating patients about breast cancer.

Patient education is no longer just a good idea; it’s a must, now that it’s linked to Medicare reimbursements and patient satisfaction scores. Read on for a look at what patient education can—and can’t—do.

Can: address health literacy challenges

The typical U.S. adult reads at about a seventh- or eighth-grade level, according to literacy statistics. Because of this, key healthcare groups such as the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health recommend that patient education materials should be written at a fourth- to sixth-grade reading level.

However, an analysis of patient education materials from 16 major medical societies found they all suffer from a lack of readability, making them difficult for patients to comprehend and potentially contributing to poor health literacy, reports Medical Economics.

The study authors noted that pictures and video may be an effective way of increasing patients’ comprehension of information that’s too complex to fully explain with text. We’ve discussed before how showing patients animations, images, or videos of their condition is faster and leads to greater understanding than if a doctor only explains it verbally.

Can’t: help patients who don’t read it or can’t understand it

A limitation of print materials is that healthcare providers can only verify whether patients received the information, not whether they actually read or understood it. In contrast, providers who share videos can track how often those videos are viewed. And in some cases, hospitals are including surveys at the end of videos to gauge patient comprehension. If scores are low, nurses receive alerts and know they need to review the information with those patients, reports Samsung’s Insights blog.

Can: be accessible to everyone at any time

Some problems with typical patient education materials are that a) they are only handed out at the doctor’s office, b) they are only accessible to the patient, and c) if patients wish to share what they learned during their appointment, they must remember and/or interpret the information and risk important health information being “lost in translation.”  

In contrast, online patient education materials are accessible to patients, family members, and caregivers after the appointment. They can be reviewed and shared as often as needed, as easily as emailing a link.

Can’t: be all things to all people

Patient education is not “one size fits all.” People like to consume information in different ways. Some learn better by reading, some by listening, and some by watching a video. It may depend on what generation the patient is from, or their culture.

Patients will get the best results when providers take steps to make sure they understand and can apply the information they’ve received about their health. One effective way to do this is using the “teach-back” technique after patients view video content. “This blend of interactive care and face-to-face clinician counseling is ideal in helping identify areas in need of review, resulting in superior clinical outcomes and a more positive patient experience,” reports Healthcare Executive Insight.

Can: affect outcomes and patient satisfaction

According to research from Gallup, pre-surgery patient education has significant positive effects on surgery outcomes, including increased overall patient satisfaction, reduced problem incidence, and improved quality of life.

In patients receiving medical device implants, three aspects of pre-surgery education were found to most affect post-surgery outcomes. Gallup found that patients who strongly agreed with just one of these statements had significantly higher satisfaction and significantly lower problem incidence compared with patients who did not strongly agree:

  •      I knew what to expect after surgery.
  •      I was prepared for my experience post-surgery.
  •      I followed post-surgery instructions, such as rehabilitation or medication.


For example, when patients strongly agreed that “I knew what to expect after surgery,” 72 percent were extremely satisfied with the surgery results, and only 8 percent reported problems following the surgery. When patients did not strongly agree with this item, 39 percent were extremely satisfied with the surgery results, and 27 percent reported problems after the surgery.

Can’t: replace the doctor-patient relationship

While it might be tempting for time-crunched doctors to rely on links and videos to educate their patients, there is no replacement for face-time with physicians. No patient wants a screen instead of their doctor’s attention in the exam room. Tech-savvy doctors know how to integrate the two effectively.

A recent survey found that 97 percent of patients are OK with their doctors using technology during visits, and 58 percent also said that technology positively impacts their overall experience, especially when it’s “used collaboratively to educate or explain.”

Need help bringing your patient education up to speed? Want to see what an interactive patient education program can do for your practice?

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