They haven’t been to nursing or medical school, but modern-day health care nonetheless requires patients and their families to take on significant responsibility for overseeing important health issues at home. The difference between healing and readmission, even life and death, often rests squarely (and overwhelmingly) on their shoulders.
"As hospital stays and clinic visits get shorter,” said Susan Barnason, PhD, RN, professor of nursing practice at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Lincoln, “the responsibility for patient management has increasingly shifted to patients and their families."
Patient education, when done right, provides the information, support, and tools to better position patients and amateur caregivers for success. Dr. Barnason is the lead author of a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association on effective patient education. Published in the association's journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcome, the guidance is geared to enhance communication with patients and families affected by heart attack, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, or heart failure.
Nevertheless, the approach it advocates can be applied to those with a broad range of issues but who share a common need: meaningful instruction from the health care team on what they need to know to manage their health the best they can.
Patient education should constitute a whole lot more than handing over preprinted information and brochures for families to peruse at their leisure, according to the statement. Health care professionals need to consider the people the information is geared to guide and whether the educational materials provided are appropriate to do a worthy job.
"Patient education can't be one-size-fits-all,” advised Dr. Barnason. “It needs to meet the patients where they are, so clinicians need to assess their patients' health literacy and cognitive skills, and include family and other caregivers when needed.”
For patients and their loved ones, juggling a new or even preexisting major health issue with daily life can be stressful enough. Taking the time to ensure everyone understands recommendations for self-management and continued care while at home eases the burden.
In your health care organization, whose job is it to educate patients? If you’re quick to name a specific individual, role, or profession who “handles that,” there’s likely room for improvement in how patient education is addressed, according to the statement.
The statement recommends a collaborative approach to patient education among various healthcare providers, the patient, and the family. Again, it’s not talking about mere brochure distribution. Instead, it offers these visions of effective information and support:
Not to bully brochures — because, let’s be honest, preprinted materials that patients can take with them and revisit as needed certainly have their place — but technological advances have made patient education more engaging and personally relevant than paper ever did. Consider, for example, apps that allow patients to measure and monitor blood pressure, or those that issue medication reminders.
"We can't make you take your pills or check your blood pressure or blood sugar. Some of the new technologies help it become more real,” said Dr. Barnason. “Instead of just putting numbers on a piece of paper, you can see the trends and get a better picture of how you're doing.”
That information can also help inform health care professionals about areas in which a patient may need more education, allowing for individualization of the educational process to address the ongoing needs of patients and families.
As patients and families take on greater responsibility in health care, health care professionals must take on greater responsibility for effective patient education. Individualization, collaboration, and technological innovation are tools organizations can use to enhance their patient support.