When’s the last time you thought about your goals when you’re educating a patient? Really and honestly?
As no-brainer as it may seem, you’d be surprised what you can gain from stopping and thinking about your patient education goals. Doing so can save you time and frustration.
In this rebroadcast of one of our earliest episodes, you’ll learn:
- why thinking about goals is trickier than it may seem
- that perfectly good goals can conflict with each other
- one question to help you laser focus your patient education goals and get clarity on what you’re doing.
Many physicians have talked with me about improving their patient education. This makes sense; patient education is a topic tightly woven together with patient communication and health literacy. This is the third in a series of podcasts where I dip down into some educational processes. The first one focuses on the importance of your patient’s background knowledge. The second is about how you’re educating, specifically how you’re handling your medical knowledge.
This episode is 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 goals when you’re educating a patient.
This is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.
What do you get from looking at your patient education goals? I’m not sure the last time someone asked you about the goals you have for each time you educate a patient. You know, what you are trying to make happen there. Short term, and long term. 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 could take some pressure off yourself by acknowledging you have multiple, potentially conflicting goals
- And make strategic use of time by focusing on only a few goals.
That’s what we’re going to talk about today. There’s plenty of good reasons to be conscious of your patient education goals. Now, maybe you think about them often. But just in case you don’t, I’m going to break some of it down for you.
Goals are tricky. Goals get a lot of airtime in the business world, and in professional and personal development realms. In health education research, slightly different story. 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. Getting 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. Let me draw your attention to what some of these goals might be. Then we’ll drill down to just one.
It’s important to recognize that, in any patient education scenario, 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 all of these to yourself.
- Some will 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 (like how you handle the last patient, on a Friday, right before a holiday).
- Some are connected to your professional role (your duties), some are connected 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 fun, is that some of these goals will likely compete with each other. With all this complexity to work with, we’re going to drill down to just one goal.
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When it comes to setting goals for yourself (or others), you may have heard the phrase ‘what do you want to know and be able to do?’ Well, that’s lovely, but we can do better. Phrases like that can be less helpful than they seem. They tend to flatten the learning process, and make education seem much more linear than it is.
The seemingly innocent ‘know and can do’ also eliminates all the other goals that are possible. We wind up focusing solely on what’s easily observable, while ignoring that human learning is largely invisible. and messy. Broadly speaking, your ultimate goals may include your facilitating your patient’s understanding of, and ability to negotiate, the health situation they are in.
So how do you know what to focus on when you’re educating? 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 to yourself. Here’s one physician’s response. She told me about her patient with uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension. She said she hoped in her next visit that 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, What are you hoping this person will learn in their time with you today? is about surfacing your explicit learning goals for patient education. One encounter at a time. Many of your goals may be cumulative; you ultimately want that better health outcome. This question draws your focus to what it is you are hoping the patient will learn in this visit.
Answering this question gives you some clarity on your primary patient education goal. When you know what you’re aiming for, it does more than show you where you’re going. 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 your primary patient education goal in mind, you have a chance to ask yourself what’s helping you get there, and what’s in your way. When you know what you are hoping this person will learn in their time with you today, you can then ask yourself some pointed questions:
- 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 might be getting in the way?
The physician mentioned earlier offered some phrases that she thought 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. She imagined saying, “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.” I thought these phrases supported both her goals–and opened up opportunities for some good talk.
What small changes can you make so that the majority of your words and actions are serving your patient education goals? Remember: all of your patients are capable of learning—regardless of their age, language, 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 to sort through the complexity 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?
If you’re listening on iTunes, it would be a big help if you’d do the rate and review. Leave stars, write something in the box. I read them! On healthcommunicationpartners.com, leave a comment and let us know what you think. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. This has been “10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication.”
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