“How much information should doctors provide patients?”

An often asked question among physicians. It is a tough call for doctors to make as they are required to balance providing information for patient education in order to ensure transparency in care versus having to be sensitive to how patients will receive said health information.

Several accounts of cardiologists, oncologists and other specialists prove just how difficult it is to find an appropriate balance when it comes to patient education. Much like prescribing medications and warning of possible side-effects, dispensing information to a non-medical audience should be done with care. You do not want to overwhelm them with details neither do you want them to only have half the information as that can have disastrous results.

Online medical sources make patient education a necessity

The Internet is abound with dubious sites professing to provide “medical facts”. Given current patient behaviour, your patients are quite likely to come across this information with a simple online search. Physicians often complain that their patients bring sheets of printouts from Wikipedia and other websites to explain their symptoms or support their self-diagnosis of health conditions. A simple headache can be made to seem like a symptom of brain tumour, causing most uninformed readers anxiety and sleepless nights.

Online Patient Education
Unverified online sources of medical information make patient education a necessity for providers

This is one of the main reasons why physicians and health providers owe it to their patients to provide the correct facts. Explaining complex medical terminology in a simple manner will ease their mind, prevent self-treatment and avoid complications from wrongful diagnosis. Besides explaining scary health conditions to patients, you are also providing them with the rationale for why you believe the chosen form of treatment is best suited to them. Making your patients understand your thought process only serves to gain their trust and they are more likely to adhere to your care plan.

Patient education also means patient empowerment

By educating patients, you are making them equal partners in their healthcare decision. This means that they are aware of their health condition and why they need to carry out certain procedures or follow specific treatments outlined by their providers. This reduces misconceptions about doctors recommending unnecessary procedures to patients as well.

Unlike what many health providers may be led to believe, patient empowerment does not mean that their patients will have no need for them. On the contrary, empowering and educating patients only serves to have them approach you rather than rely on multiple (online or offline) sources for information on their health.

As physicians, you are imparting knowledge to your patients every day. However, it is also well-established that patients are likely to forget most of the details that are discussed at the doctor’s office. Perhaps it is the anxiety of being in that environment or maybe it’s owing to them being ill and mentally exhausted. Nevertheless, educating patients should go beyond just the doctor’s office for it to be effective.

How can patient education be made effective? 

  1. Explain the benefits to patients

If you are committed to offering your patients the best care then it is only about making the effort and taking the time to communicate with them. Talk to your patients, understand their expectations and convey yours. Chances are they haven’t had a provider that has taken an initiative to provide them with information. So you may also have to explain the benefits of doing this and why it is going to help them.

  1. Use technology

Pamphlets, charts and images only go so far to help patients. Yes, visual aids are great, but printed information is never retained with the patient and is likely to be filed away and never looked at again. Using technology, like creating a space for informative articles on your patient portal or maybe using a health communication channel on the web or mobile is quicker and more effective at getting the message across to your patients. It will also be accessible to them whenever they need to go back to it and is more environment-friendly.

  1. Get rid of the jargon

The aim of providing information to patients is to simplify complex terminology and medical jargon. Therefore, you should use simple language to explain complicated health conditions and their implications. It helps to be objective when discussing medical procedures by explaining the benefits and risks associated with them to allow patients to make an informed decision.

  1. Use social media

Social media is a great medium to post helpful and informative health tips. You will find patients engaging with published content and discussing their health queries. You can also choose to create discussion groups that could be illness-specific, gender-specific or age-specific to categorize your audience in order to better refine the information that you distribute among groups.

  1. Encourage patients to ask questions

Patient education is about effective provider-patient communication. Hence it is equally important that your patient education platform has a provision for patients to ask questions about the articles that you are posting. This is perhaps one of the biggest benefits of having provider-generated content as opposed to obscure content on other websites. Patients are likely to value this type of interaction as there is more accountability and ownership of content. Encouraging questions also makes you a better physician.

  1. Have automated alerts

It isn’t practical for you or your staff to constantly remind patients to check your patient portal, social platform or mobile app for the latest news that you have posted. Make sure your portal or software has a system that sends automated alerts or notifications to your patients about any new updates so that they don’t miss out.

  1. Get feedback from patients

Feedback from patients will help you customize your health educational material. Perhaps your patients may want to know about public health concerns that pose a global threat like the Zika virus, Ebola, MERS etc. Interest in health concerns vary so it is important to check in with your patients occasionally to ensure that your efforts aren’t in vain. Online questionnaires and feedback forms can help you get your patients’ opinions.

Balancing patient education while managing your practice

The reason more physicians aren’t providing patient education is not because they don’t want to, it’s because they find it a challenge to devote adequate time to it while managing their practice. This is understandable. It is also why healthcare platforms, like the Virtual Practice, have a Health Network. The Health Network is a health communication channel that is exclusively dedicated to encourage discussions among doctors and patients. Unlike social media platforms, this network aims to bring together like-minded people to support and facilitate better health outcomes.

One of the advantages of the Health Network is that it collates online published health information for health providers to share with their patients. Share articles and helpful tips from the network that you think may be useful to your patients without having to spend much time writing them yourself. The Health Network also serves as a means of interacting with other physicians and getting the latest medical news from across the globe, serving also a means of physician education.

The Health Network is accessible on the Virtual Practice mobile app, making it easy to access and obtain information 24/7. You can also contribute to this growing network with case studies, personal experiences and success stories to share them with a larger global audience.