Patient Education in the Digital Age
Improve patient comprehension of their health by updating your mode of communication for the 21st century.
A recent study found that the average human attention span has fallen to eight seconds. In comparison, scientists believe that the goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. We have become conditioned to the barrage of texts, tweets, alerts, ads, posts, emails, and more. And we have become addicted to the constant flow of new, bite-sized information bits, making it difficult to concentrate on any one thing for very long.
“A recent study found that the average human attention span has fallen to eight seconds. In comparison, scientists believe that the goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds.”
This shrinking attention span underscores the challenge physicians face when it comes to educating patients about their own health. Unlike the latest celebrity breakup news or CNN News update, however, this critical information can be hard to summarize in 140 characters. In this environment where patients (all of us, really) are swimming in information overload, how do physicians break through the noise to ensure lifesaving knowledge is getting through to patients?
Reach Patients Where They Are
Reinventing patient education for the digital age doesn’t mean a reinvention of the wheel, but rather having a greater understanding of how patients consume information today. This shift means that typical handouts or standard brochures are no longer enough. Leaders in patient education are turning to digital formats to reach their audiences. Patient education now more closely resembles online content, available via email, download, and interactive games to help with information retention.
This shift to digital formats, including video and online games, allows patients to absorb information in a format they are already familiar with, in places where they naturally seek information. In many cases, these communication channels include online links, chat features, and quizzes to help connect with formats that provide more of a human format to aid in learning.
Educate Patients in All Formats
Today’s patient education doesn’t resemble the medical- and scientific-laden jargon of days gone by. With new terms and the increased use of slang becoming commonplace in our vernacular, health information must be updated for today’s comprehension. This includes using simple terms, common language among all education levels, and visuals to support comprehension.
Educators know that individuals learn and retain information in a variety of formats, and simply reading doesn’t reach a full audience. As a result, companies are increasing the use of visual diagrams, informatics, and audio/visual (A/V) content to help support greater comprehension. This approach also helps to reach audiences where Facebook and YouTube are often the primary source of information.
Speak Their Language
Dedicated patient education for non-English speakers substantially reduces the risk of comprehension problems. Even for English-speaking patients, health literacy in the United States is at an all-time low. In a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on health education, only 12 percent of respondents had a strong understanding of their health. With more than 20 percent of the U.S. population speaking a language other than English, making patient education materials available in a patient’s native language further helps to increase comprehension and likelihood they will follow treatment guidelines.
Medical providers and patients often count on patient education to help guide conversations about proper care, treatment, and lifesaving measures in the spread of diseases. By making critical health information available in a person’s native language, physicians help to protect the health of patients young and old, in every language.
Integrate Education in EHRs
Through the advancement in electronic health record (EHR) technology, providers have gained an easier way to share patient education and ensure the delivery of critical health instructions. Using new SMART on FHIR app technology, EHR companies allow direct integration of patient education materials into the provider workflow. This integration allows providers to assign recommended educational materials, videos, interactive games, and more directly to the patient — delivered via patient portal, email, text, and other digital formats.
In cases where a sensitive condition is diagnosed or complex treatment is needed, physicians know that all information is unlikely to be retained. By allowing the integration of educational material directly via the EHR, they are provided greater assurance that a patient has the information they need and the ability to revisit it as needed. There are even functions that send updates to the provider showing patient progress in reviewing the material, helping to guide conversations in subsequent visits.
As a part of healthcare’s move toward patient-centered care, making patient education more accessible with common language, familiar formats, and native languages helps to foster better engagement. Patients can better understand the unique aspects of their health through enhanced education, helping them to make more informed decisions about their health and ultimately take an active role toward health improvement.
David Gregg, MD, is the chief medical officer for StayWell, a health engagement company. He oversees health management programs to drive lasting change and improved health outcomes. He previously served as principal consultant with Mercer.
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