Many physicians have talked with me about improving their patient education. This makes sense; it’s a topic tightly woven together with patient communication and health literacy.
So, several months ago I wrote “5 steps to improve your patient education.” It’s a quick fly-over of many educational strategies.
I promised I would gradually dive deeper into each one of the steps. So far, I have written about the importance of your patient’s background knowledge. And on how you’re teaching, specifically how you handle your medical knowledge.
This article will be about identifying your educational goals, and why that’s important.
And I’ll give you one question that will help cut through the noise, and help make sure everything you’re doing is contributing to your primary focus when you’re educating a patient.
What do you gain from looking at your patient education goals?
If you know what your goals are, you know when you reach them, right? But there’s more to be gained than this, when you reflect on your patient education goals:
- You gain control over your communication by connecting your words to your goals
- You can identify your own ‘best practices’ and find out what’s getting in your way
- You make strategic use of time by focusing on only a few goals, and sticking to words and actions that support those goals primarily
- You take some pressure off yourself by acknowledging you have multiple, potentially conflicting goals
There’s plenty of good reason to be conscious of your patient education goals.
Now, maybe you think about your patient education goals often. But just in case you don’t, I’m going to break some of it down for you here.
Goals are tricky
There’s many reasons it can be tough to think about your patient education goals.
Goals get a lot of airtime in business, and in professional and personal development realms. In health education research, there’s significant attention paid to patients’ goal-setting. Some research describes collaborative goal-setting, but again the focus is on patients.
What about your goals when it comes to educating?
Sure, your educational goals might seem self-explanatory. Better health outcomes. Get a patient ‘from A to B.’ But you know this is all more complicated than it sounds.
You definitely have goals when it comes to patient education. (As do your patients, which I’ll take up in another article.)
Let me draw your attention to what some of those goals might be. Then we’ll drill down to just one.
You have multiple goals in any interaction
It’s important to recognize that, in any patient education, you will have multiple simultaneous goals.
That is to say, there are all sorts of things you’re trying to achieve, whether or not you get a chance to acknowledge them to yourself.
Some relate to patient learning, like going over the results of a test.
Some are about your relationship with the patient and his/her family, like involving family members in SDM.
Some are explicit organizational goals you don’t have a choice about (time, RVUs).
Some are more tacit organizational goals, related to the kind of small-scale micro-politics going on in your practice situation (how you handle the last patient, on a Friday, right before a holiday).
Some are connected to your professional role (your duties), some to the kind of professional you want to be (your dreams).
And there’s more.
All of these are worth talking about. In a way, all of these come into play around patient education. What’s especially nifty is how some of these goals will likely compete with each other.
With all this complexity, let’s get down to one important question.
Ask yourself this one question
When it comes to setting goals for yourself (or others), you may have heard the phrase ‘what do you want (someone) to know and be able to do?’
Well, that’s lovely, but we can do better.
See, phrases like that can be less helpful than they seem. They tend to flatten the learning process, and make it seem much more linear than it is.
The seemingly innocent ‘know and can do’ also eliminates all the different thinking and understanding goals that are possible. We wind up focusing solely on what’s easily observable, while (to our peril) ignoring the largely invisible messiness that is human learning.
Consider that you are hoping to facilitate a patient’s understanding of, and ability to negotiate, the health situation they are in. With this ultimate goal in mind, ask yourself this one question:
What are you hoping this person will learn in their time with you today?
Another way of saying this is, What do you want this patient to be thinking about after your interaction is over?
Go ahead and articulate your response, out loud or in writing, to yourself.
Here’s one physician’s response. She had a patient with uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension. She said she hoped the patient would learn how and why to control her diet. Then, she added that this patient had been shamed for her appearance, and so she hoped this patient would learn some body positivity in their time together.
This question is about surfacing your explicit learning goals for patient education. Answering this question draws your focus to what it is you are hoping the patient will learn when they are with you regarding their condition (or the health-related subject at hand).
How clear goals make a difference
Now you’ve got some clarity on your patient education goal.
This does more than show you where you’re doing. This level of clarity also allows you to remove obstacles. You can start to notice those times when you unintentionally take the hard way around, by talking and acting in ways that do not fit with your primary goal.
Put another way: with this clarity, you have a chance to ask yourself what’s helping you get there, and what’s in your way.
Is what I’m talking about contributing to that goal, or not? Which of my words are contributing to that goal? Which aren’t? Which of my actions are contributing to that goal? Which are getting in the way?
The physician mentioned earlier offered some phrases that might help her achieve both her educational goals of helping a patient learn how and why to control her diet, along with some body positivity:
“Let’s sit down and talk about your body. It’s beautiful…[there’s no time] to listen to people who do not know anything about you and your anatomy.”
These phrases supported both her goals–and opened up opportunities for several ways of learning.
What small changes can you make so that the majority of your words and actions during patient education are serving your patient education goals?
Everyone can learn
Remember: all of your patients are capable of learning—regardless of their age, background, or IQ score.
In our short time together today, I hope you have learned that goals can be complex. More than that, I hope you’ve learned that it’s totally worth it when we sort through the messiness and get clarity.
I’ll encourage you to keep thinking about what your goals are for each patient education, and mentally checking your words and actions against those goals.
See what I did there?