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Readers Write: Once Retro, Now Current Again: Why Print is Essential to Your Health Education Program

December 12, 2018 Readers Write No Comments

Once Retro, Now Current Again: Why Print is Essential to Your Health Education Program
By P.J. Bell

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P.J. Bell is co-chief content officer at StayWell of Yardley, PA.

Smartphones, tablets, computers. You might think the best way to educate patients about their healthcare is electronically. That’s a fair assumption, considering the average American spends nearly 24 hours a week online. With more than 84 percent of folks accessing the Internet from mobile devices (that’s according to a report from the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future), you have good reason to think digital is the way to go. But if your practice is considering going all digital, pause for a moment to rethink that strategy.

While digital experiences are critical for engaging today’s savvy healthcare consumer, printed educational materials remain an important part of the care continuum. People still like to receive printed information at an office visit or during discharge from a hospital stay. Both patients and healthcare providers report that printed brochures or handouts are the most effective means of communication. In fact, more than half of patients say that printed educational material about their diseases or the drugs they’ve been prescribed are more useful than other tools available to them. A similar number of providers also indicate that they rely primarily on print collateral when talking to their patients.

Surprisingly, this majority isn’t just older patients. Even Millennials prefer printed materials. Various surveys have shown that more than three-quarters – and in some cases, 90 percent or more – of Millennials said they preferred reading print materials. In fact, if cost was the same for a print or digital book, they’d pick the paper version.

Paper Rules

Healthcare practices and hospitals are faced with the great challenge of ensuring that their patients fully understand their medical conditions and treatment plans. And just as vital, a patient needs to know what to do after leaving the doctor’s office or being discharged from the hospital. More than $73 billion is spent each year on unnecessary healthcare expenses because patients don’t fully comprehend what their medical providers say to them, according to the Institute for Healthcare Advancement.

The fact is, patients face a number of barriers when trying to follow medical guidance. They can be confused by medical jargon or simply overwhelmed by the amount of information—good or bad—that they can access. Some may be embarrassed to seek additional information or hesitant to ask questions. This alone results in about half of all patients leaving their doctor’s office without a solid understanding of what they were told or what they should do going forward.

However, when printed materials are used as a resource, medical staff can go over the information with patients in the office or at the hospital and get a sense of their understanding. This allows staff to determine any additional resources that could benefit the patient. Just as important, when patients are faced with an unexpected diagnosis or new medicine to take, having something in-hand to take home and re-read later enables them to think more clearly about next steps. That way, they can develop questions they may want to ask of their provider via email, phone, or at a follow-up appointment.

In many cases, given the vast quantity of medical information on the Internet—potentially from questionable sources—patients often believe print materials are more official and trustworthy than electronic documents.

The Prescription for a Well-Rounded Patient Education Plan

If your practice is planning to go all digital, let the evidence showing the importance of printed materials give you pause. Going digital can help you deliver advanced offerings. But ultimately, you need to know your audience and communicate in ways that resonate best with them. This may require a multimedia approach.

To develop a patient education program that will deliver greater value to patients and improve outcomes, consider these tips:

  • Don’t re-create the wheel. Your organization probably has a lot of educational content in its archives, whether it is pre-printed brochures or an electronic library from which you can print on demand. Leverage these existing resources to provide customized education that meets individual needs. Give your patients a takeaway that they, as well as family members and caregivers, can refer to later at home.
  • Use technology where appropriate. Every patient has a different learning style, so offer educational content in a variety of formats to help enable comprehension. Also, keep in mind that a large part of health literacy is ensuring your patients have repeated access to information. For some, printed material that they can read and keep as a reference is ideal. Others may respond better to watching a video made available online or as a DVD they can borrow from the office. Some patients may be tech savvy and prefer to access their information from a patient portal, while a few others may lack internet access or be uncomfortable using a computer. Also, consider the primary language of your patient base. Do you need to provide educational content in languages other than English?
  • Review materials with patient and family members. Sometimes just a few extra minutes can make all the difference. When possible, carve out time to talk through the educational material you’re providing, and use common language that most people will understand. Take cues from your patient. If he or she is impacted by fatigue or the shock of a diagnosis, it can be harder to absorb what you’re saying. It’s also important to consider whether patients have physical, mental, or emotional impairments that may affect their ability to learn. Some may need specialized resources if they are vision- or hearing-impaired. Whenever possible, include family members in the education process, since they often play a critical role in your patient’s healthcare management.

Education is key to ensuring that patients understand what they need to do to address chronic conditions, recover from injury or surgery, or improve their overall health. Digital technologies shouldn’t override your practice’s ability to share healthcare information in a way that enhances patient understanding. As you explore new ways of delivering patient education, don’t miss out on the successful communication available when print materials are part of the process. A winning patient education program is flexible enough to deliver content in the format that works best for each patient.

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