The best tools and strategies for effective patient education

Many patients struggle to understand and retain health information. Studies have shown that patients usually forget between 40 and 80 percent of the information given to them during a medical appointment, and almost half of what they do remember is incorrect, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Stress and fear—such as from a scary diagnosis or a global pandemic—can make this even worse.

As we discussed in a recent post, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted what doctors already knew: many people do not have the ability to understand and interpret numbers, which affects their ability to grasp health statistics and interpret risks. In fact, only 9 percent of U.S. adults have proficient numeracy, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Limited health literacy skills are just as much of a problem: 9 in 10 adults struggle to understand and apply health information when it is unfamiliar, complex or jargon-filled, according to the CDC.

So what’s the solution? A combination of clear communication strategies and techniques. Read on to find out how using visuals and the teach-back technique can improve your patient education.

The case for visual aids

Numerous studies have shown that the majority of the population is thought to be visual learners. Pictures, such as bar charts, graphs, and arrays, can make it easier and more effective to communicate health information to patients, rather than giving them written brochures or verbal explanations. For more on this, see our recent post, Why Pictures Are Better Than Numbers.

Visual tools like simulations and videos can be more effective ways to communicate health information than text-only materials or verbal explanations.

In some cases, videos and simulations can be even more impactful. For instance, watch this 3-D simulation from the New York Times showing why social distancing is effective. Another example is Rendia’s Outcome Simulator, a sophisticated visual tool to simulate prospective cataract and refractive surgery patients’ current, unaided vision and how they would see with possible treatment options. With the click of a button, doctors can show patients and their caregivers or family members what their vision looks like now in several realistic scenes—such as an office setting and driving at night—versus their potential outcomes with various IOLs.

Patients who watched videos—specifically, narrated animations—were 1.3 times as likely to understand their condition than patients given text-only materials, and 1.5 times as likely to correctly answer questions about care instructions, according to a study conducted by Rendia. Not only that, but narrated animations are perceived by patients as 1.2 times as trustworthy as text-only materials. And now more than ever, it’s imperative for doctors to retain patients’ trust. In addition, a study published last year in the journal Clinical Ophthalmology found that watching educational videos during preoperative cataract surgery assessments improved patient understanding of cataract surgery and perception of preoperative visits. 

How to use the teach-back method

Regardless of a patient’s health literacy level, it’s important that providers make sure patients understand the information they have been given, according to AHRQ. An effective way to check this is the teach-back method. “Patient teach-back is a patient-provider communication strategy during which providers ask patients to repeat information back to them,” explained PatientEngagementHIT.com. It’s important to remember it’s not a test of patients’ knowledge, but rather a way to confirm that the provider has sufficiently explained things in easy-to-understand terms.

Asking patients to explain in their own words what they need to know or do about their health can improve adherence and reduce unnecessary call-backs that contribute to doctor burnout.

Asking patients to state in their own words what they need to know or do about their health can improve patient satisfaction, adherence, and outcomes. The teach-back method can also reduce call-backs and no-shows, according to AHRQ. This is especially important in our current COVID-19 climate, since doctor burnout is at an all-time high, and one contributing factor is patients being put back on the schedule to be seen in a very short amount of time, due to noncompliance or misunderstanding post-operative care instructions.

Here’s what the teach-back method could look like in practice. Prior to an in-person or telehealth appointment, you could send patients this video: What to Expect on the Day of Cataract Surgery. Then during the appointment, instead of asking, “do you have any questions?” you could say:

  • “I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. Can you tell me in your own words what your take-aways from this video are?”
  • “I want to be sure I explained everything clearly. Can you explain back to me how you will take out your contacts each night?”
  • “Since your spouse couldn’t be here today, what will you tell them about the treatment options we discussed?”

For more information about the teach-back method, check out the provider training toolkit offered by the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA). And for download our Health Literacy Whitepaper.