Effective Patient Education

Patient education – more than meets the eye

Patient education is evolving. It’s no longer enough to simply “tell” patients what to do — healthcare reforms in many countries aim at empowering patients and engaging them in their care. Plus, patients can’t be expected to remember everything they’ve been told in the clinic or hospital, considering the volume of information, medical jargon and differences in clinicians’ communication abilities, not to mention the stress of being in the healthcare environment.

However, going beyond simply “telling” to truly educating patients is difficult to accomplish due to factors healthcare providers (HCPs) can’t control. For example, there aren’t enough patient education materials available in languages other than English, a big issue for hospitals that treat a multicultural, multilingual population. Furthermore, strong evidence indicates that patient education materials are written at a reading level that is incomprehensible for many. To make matters worse, some HCPs might lack the specific training to provide appropriate patient education and, therefore, aren’t able to educate their patients successfully. For other HCPs, time constraints mean simply handing a pre-printed brochure to a patient, in the hopes it’ll be read (and fully comprehended).


Patient Education Example

Figure 1. An example of patient education material that is text-heavy, difficult to read, and contains medical terminology that some patients may not understand.


Why effective patient education is important

Patients who don’t understand their care tend to be unhappy with their care.1,2 Every patient is now just a few clicks from telling everyone about their dissatisfaction, which can have a big effect on public perception, potentially even driving patients to other facilities. Perhaps even more critically, satisfied patients are more likely to complete treatment regimens and to be compliant and cooperative, and are less likely to seek unnecessary medical attention.1,4 All this means that education, understanding and satisfaction aren’t just buzzwords — they’re the keys to good clinical outcomes and efficient use of resources.

Thus, hospitals need to acknowledge their patients’ feelings and concerns. Appropriate, targeted patient education materials are one way hospitals can show that they understand their patients’ problems and are actively paying attention to them.3 Medical device and pharmaceutical companies can and should offer to assist hospitals to improve patient education. In fact, patient education should be a critical part of your marketing mix, a way to show hospitals that you understand their needs and concerns (just as hospitals need to do for patients). Not to mention:

  • Product differentiation. In the current market, physicians often have access to products with similar efficacy profiles for treating various conditions. Providing a patient education support system sets you apart.
  • Better outcomes. Patients are more likely to adhere to their treatment if their expectations are managed up front. For example, understanding potential side effects and their management makes patients less likely to give up on treatments. Thus, medical companies are able to help improve patient outcomes, bringing further value to the table for hospitals and physicians.
  • Accuracy of information. Patients are going online to get their information; after all, a quick Google is more convenient than a visit to the doctor. However, not all the information they obtain will be correct. By investing in developing patient education materials, companies help ensure patients get the correct information about their products.
Patient Education Good Example

Figure 2. An example of good patient education material that uses simple language and clear illustrations.


Tips to improve patient education

So, how can we develop patient education materials that encourage patient engagement, are digestible for most patients, and are easy for HCPs to add to their routines? Here are a few insights for printed patient education materials:

1. Understand your target audience

Brochures with photographs of elderly people will not be well received by young patients. For example, the percentage of young patients receiving medical devices has increased dramatically, and education materials should reflect the patient population. Patients won’t do anything with the information if they feel it’s not for them.

2. Simplify the language

The American Medical Association (AMA) and U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend that patient education materials not exceed a sixth-grade (11-year-old) reading level. One study found that articles on a recognized and reputable online source exceeded the maximum recommended level by an average of 4.9 grade levels! Simplifying content can be as easy as including familiar examples instead of merely listing categories such as “poultry” and “shellfish.”

3. Consider the communication channels

Elderly people are less likely to use the Internet to do their research about their illness. Tailor education to work with or independently of technological know-how.

4. Gather feedback from your target audience

A relatively easy way to gain input is by organizing a focus group with patients. Although this may seem an elaborate process, it can make the difference in the quality of patient education materials. In the end, who better to assess whether the material is clear, relevant and understandable than the patients themselves?

5. Don’t overwhelm your target audience with information

No patient is going to read a 102-page brochure. A few clever tips to prevent overdosing your patients with information:

    • Split up treatments to avoid confusion, and limit the amount of information.
    • Prioritise content, focusing on the core objective: understanding the medical condition and treatment process. Information about cafeteria opening hours, bedside televisions and how to obtain newspapers can be convenient, but they shouldn’t be part of patient education materials.
    • Enrich or replace text with illustrations where possible.5
    • Optimize content utilization by communicating via other channels, e.g., an online patient education portal. The content should be published as fresh, easy-to-use webpages. In comparison, hosted PDFs are often not indexed by search engines and are more difficult to navigate as patients will need to scroll through the file to find links.
6. Do not be condescending

Patients might not know everything, but they’re also not stupid. If the audience feels respected, messages are more likely to be gotten across.

These are just a few pointers for improving patient education material. Regardless if printed or in digital form, the aim of patient education must be to empower patients about their treatments.



1. Younis J, Salerno G, Chaudhary A, et al. Reduction in hospital reattendance due to improved preoperative patient education following hemorrhoidectomy. Journal for healthcare quality : official publication of the National Association for Healthcare Quality. Nov-Dec 2013;35(6):24-29.

2. Fortina M, Carta S, Gambera D, Crainz E, Ferrata P, Maniscalco P. Recovery of physical function and patient’s satisfaction after total hip replacement (THR) surgery supported by a tailored guide-book. Acta bio-medica : Atenei Parmensis. Dec 2005;76(3):152-156.

3. Hoppe DJ, de Sa D, Simunovic N, et al. The learning curve for hip arthroscopy: a systematic review. Arthroscopy: the journal of arthroscopic & related surgery : official publication of the Arthroscopy Association of North America and the International Arthroscopy Association. Mar 2014;30(3):389-397.

4. Vetter TR, Downing ME, Vanlandingham SC, Noles KM, Boudreaux AM. Predictors of patient medication compliance on the day of surgery and the effects of providing patients with standardized yet simplified medication instructions. Anesthesiology. Jul 2014;121(1):29-35.

5. Zeng-Treitler Q, Perri S, Nakamura C, et al. Evaluation of a pictograph enhancement system for patient instruction: a recall study. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association : JAMIA. Nov 2014;21(6):1026-1031.




About Nathalie Preiswerk

Nathalie is a medical writer experienced in translating complex scientific data into powerful targeted messaging for specific audiences. Following a successful academic career in biochemistry at ETH Zurich, Nathalie has now specialised in immunology and haematology. Nathalie finds great inspiration in working closely with a variety of healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, and patient advocates.
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