It could be argued that patient education was once one of the most undervalued aspects of healthcare. However, it is fair to say that it has become a highly prized asset for almost any medical institution. In modern healthcare organizations, there is a growing awareness of how patients appreciate receiving informed care and information about their situation. It has become less of an added feature and a fundamental expectation of their experience. In addition, plenty of research is available to suggest that providing high-quality information to patients can encourage them to act in their interests and take proactive steps to improve their lifestyle and other factors related to good health, which can lead to vastly superior health outcomes.
So what exactly do we mean by patient education, and why is it so important? In this article, we examine the changing face of patient education, why these changes might have occurred, and how better patient education can lead to more effective treatment. In addition, we will also look at the role of different professionals involved in informing patients, the importance of health administrators in building a support structure for patient education, and the kind of career paths available for people interested in this field.
Patient education has been a crucial aspect of medicine since the beginning. Indeed, the Latin origin of the word doctor, ‘docere,’ means ‘to teach,’ and physicians have always been expected to impart some level of understanding to the people in their care. Yet in the era of modern medicine, doctors were, until relatively recently, presented as though they were infallible voices of authority to be obeyed and never questioned. In recent times, however, a more communicative approach to providing healthcare has emerged, where healthcare providers are expected to treat the patient as a partner in the situation and provide more detailed information for patients and – when appropriate –their families. In fact, in many countries, not only are healthcare providers more likely to focus on offering more patient-centered care, but patients are also increasingly likely to expect and ask for more information about their health. Patient education is a central aspect of any patient-centered approach.
The American Association of Family Physicians defines patient education as “influencing patient behavior and producing the changes in knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to maintain or improve health.” Generally speaking, this means that if, for example, a patient is diagnosed with a disease or condition, they are not simply told in stark terms about what they have and how they will be treated. Instead, the doctor or other healthcare provider will try to provide them with a full explanation of what to expect. They will typically discuss various treatment options with the patient based on their requirements.
Changing expectations and awareness
Why has this type of approach become popular? Some argue that in private and state healthcare systems, people are more aware that they have invested their money in the health institution and want to be treated as equals. Society is also generally less hierarchical than before: people often have a less vaunted view of authority figures and are more likely to question what they have to say. In line with this, health professionals are thought to be more open to discussion and establishing an honest dialogue with their patients (though it should be noted that many of the best physicians and nurses have always been capable of or willing to adopt this kind of approach).
There is also so much information available online and elsewhere that patients can develop reasonably detailed opinions – that may or may not be accurate – about what they might or might not have and how best to treat it even before visiting the doctor for a consultation. While there are certainly negative sides to this issue – patients who prefer to treat themselves when they are in serious need of professional help, for example, or are prone to arguing the point despite the doctor’s far more extensive knowledge – there are also some clear benefits. Most importantly, by conducting their research and reading extensively about the issue, the patient can feel more involved in proceedings and take ownership and responsibility for their health. Indeed, this feeling of control in a situation where the individual often feels they have largely lost control of something incredibly important to them – their health – can be a hugely reassuring and beneficial factor that can help people cope with a traumatic time in their lives.
Better information equals better outcomes.
It is also important to note that in addition to the benefits listed above, informed treatment is usually more effective – studies show that treating patients with respect and providing detailed information about how they can best improve their situation generally leads to improved health outcomes. This is because if someone is more aware of why they have a problem and what they can do to help get better, they are more motivated and more knowledgeable about taking action – a distinction that is often the difference between success and failure. This makes particular sense if we consider the fact that a large number of deaths in Western countries, for example, are classified as ‘premature,’ meaning that behavioral issues, such as unhealthy eating habits, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, reckless driving, or lack of exercise in some way cause them.
If, for instance, someone finds out they have type 2 diabetes, they can be provided with a wide range of additional information about typical causes of the disease, as well as what they can do in terms of their diet and lifestyle to improve or manage the situation. If the information is presented correctly and the patient is willing to change, then the course of the disease can be very different compared to someone who keeps on with the same old habits as before. Helping to alter patient habits can also help prevent a range of other health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and cancer, while a patient already suffering from any of these diseases can also improve their chances of a positive outcome by making adjustments to their current lifestyle.
The patient at the center
Naturally, these changes largely depend on the patient’s attitude – yes, the health professional can present the relevant information. Still, they cannot change the mind of someone reluctant or unable to alter their behavior. In addition, it is also important not to place excessive responsibility on the patient. This is particularly true with more serious diseases in an advanced stage, with limitations to what can be done. And even if the advice is justified and the changes could genuinely make a difference to the patient’s health, applying too much pressure on the individual can sometimes be counterproductive.
This is why any communication is likely more effective if carried out collaboratively, not in a top-down fashion. A good patient communicator must be capable of sharing information in the right context, comfortable with involving the close family in the decision-making process, and able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the patient so that they can offer the right advice in the right way. A patient-centered approach, where the health professional provides an educating and supporting role, is often the most effective and can be a vital step in the healing process.
A key part of a health professional’s role
Of course, the doctor is often the first person to inform a patient of a particular diagnosis, and it is up to them to provide information about the nature of the issue, any possible treatment plans, and potentially the patient’s expectations. The nurse, of course, will also often be on hand to provide information and educate patients. At the same time, doctors and nurses are often overwhelmed by other duties, and, realistically, they are not always able to provide the level of detailed information they would like, sometimes leaving patients with additional questions and concerns unanswered.
As a result, in many large or even small-scale healthcare organizations, hospital administrators are sometimes responsible for providing additional assistance to patients. This assistance can take several forms, from a simple question and answer session to providing information leaflets or later discussions via email, phone, or chat to discuss further points. In these situations, the hospital administrator can serve as a point of liaison between the patient and medical staff – dealing with requests when able and seeking the doctor’s or nurse’s help when appropriate. Just as often, the health administrator is tasked with providing administrative leadership to help build the structure through which physicians and nurses can assist patients, for example, by providing detailed data analysis and digital learning tools that can be forwarded to patients.
Providing the right structure
In addition to helping to provide patient information, hospital administrators are also responsible for shaping healthcare systems and policy, providing organizational leadership, and implementing change management. With the Telfer School of Management’s online Executive Master of Health Administration at the University of Ottawa, you can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to help provide professional management in the challenging healthcare environment. Because the course is available entirely online, it is perfect for prospective students unwilling or unable to relocate to a campus university. In contrast, the flexible nature of the course means that people in full-time employment can still complete it in two years. Upon graduation, students will be equipped with leadership, data analytics, healthcare structures, and communication expertise that will enable them to lead healthcare organizations and positively contribute to society.
A central aspect of modern healthcare
Indeed, as we have stressed above, patient information is a crucial part of healthcare today. Most healthcare professionals understand the importance of it and seek to create a dialogue with patients that can help them take a positive attitude to treatment and consequently improve health outcomes. And it is safe to say that if doctors and nurses are given the time, support, and tools to provide this information, they will likely enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. Education and informed care are also highly valued by patients, who generally appreciate being treated as partners in their health journey and taking on the responsibility of trying to improve their situation.
In addition, healthcare institutions increasingly strongly emphasize providing patients with detailed information, knowing that improved patient satisfaction combined with better health outcomes will help them build an even more valuable and appreciated institution. Health administrators often play a crucial role in this process, whether by becoming personally involved in providing patient education or by working hard to establish the conditions in the institution where healthcare professionals can offer thorough, clear, patient-centered, and evidence-based communication in a friendly and open manner. The demand for this kind of approach is ever-growing, and as we look to the future, we can expect patients to enjoy even more informed healthcare services than ever, representing a positive step forward for us all.