An estimated 65 percent of the population are thought to be visual learners – people who retain information better by seeing pictures and videos rather than reading text or hearing information delivered orally. In fact, the percentage of visual learners may be much higher (some studies put the figure as high as 85 percent), depending on the methodology of the study and the categories of learning styles included.
Couple that with the sobering statistics from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy showing that nearly half of American adults demonstrate low levels of literacy, and it’s clear that there is no downside to doctors incorporating high-quality visual elements into their patient education materials. Not only will you improve patients’ comprehension of their health and treatment – you may even increase compliance as well.
Think like a visual learner
Generally speaking, visual learners:
- need to see a picture of what they are learning about before they fully understand it
- are drawn to colorful, visually stimulating things
- prefer written materials that include photos, diagrams, or illustrations
- usually recall information better when they can actually see the person who is speaking
Keeping these factors in mind, doctors can better serve visual learners in several simple ways. Show patients a diagram when you are explaining a condition or procedure – either an illustration from a medical text or an animation on a computer screen or iPad. Face patients when you are speaking to them, and pay attention to their verbal cues, such as “I see” or “I can’t picture that.” In any instructions, include pictures when possible. If using photos, make sure the patients in the pictures look like your actual patients – e.g., adolescents instead of elderly, if that’s your typical patient population. If using diagrams or illustrations, make sure they’re simple, colorful, and not overly technical.
For help, check out the Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool (PEMAT) from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a systematic method to make sure patient education materials are understandable and actionable, including visual aids.
Challenges for visual learners in health care settings
Doctors’ offices present particular challenges for visual learners for several reasons:
- Health information is typically presented at a higher level than general information. Studies have shown that most health care materials are written at a 10th-grade level while the average American reading level is about eighth grade. Make sure your patient education materials are easily understood by the average layperson.
- In today’s health care climate, doctors often do not have the time to assess their patients’ literacy levels or learning styles. Most are focused on presenting the required information and moving on to the next patient. That’s why it’s particularly important to present information in a variety of formats, and to make sure it’s accessible to the patient after the appointment.
- Lastly, complex clinical information is often presented to patients during stressful times when they may not be focused on understanding it. They may need time to process their diagnosis before they can concentrate on treatment plans, medications, and follow-up. For this reason, having information that can be accessed later or easily shared with the patient’s family or other caregivers is crucial.
Benefits of visual aids in patient education
Recent studies have shown that visual aids can improve understanding of health risks, and may even affect patients’ compliance. Additionally, researchers say that integrating visual aids with information technology holds great promise for increasing patients’ understanding of health risks and supporting more informed decision making.