Why You Need Patient Education Materials

Why You Need Patient Education Materials

My friend Alice is a veteran of the health care system.

Working in the garden, writing a memoir, and baking are her preferred ways of spending time. But this dynamic retired legal assistant has had to call on her years of questioning and analytical skills to get the most basic answers from the clinic doing her back surgery.

Education helps keep patients safe

"When should I stop taking ibuprofen before my surgery?"
"Is it OK to take aspirin?"
"Are my other medications safe to take?"

Alice's surgery center offered no written pre-surgery instructions or verbal teaching, so she asked ... me. Her friend the medical writer. "Do you think I should quit taking my ibuprofen?"

I consulted Google. Fortunately, some surgery centers do have written instructions, and the consensus was to discontinue NSAIDS about 7 days before surgery. Alice also remembered stopping other medications before previous operations, so she discontinued everything but Tylenol.

Fast forward to the pre-surgery consult, one day before the procedure. Alice told her surgeon she had stopped taking certain medicines after the clinic receptionist couldn't give her any information -- and the nurse didn't get back to her.

His response? "I love smart patients."

It's true, my friend is smart. She's also lucky. She is an experienced surgery patient and has no dire conditions that might cause her death on the operating table because no one told her to stop taking X, Y, or Z before surgery. But she also worried about this stuff for a week -- a great pre-surgery state of mind, right? The Internet, her memory of past procedures, and advice from a friend substituted for real patient education. In a different scenario, the surgeon might have had reason to use his malpractice insurance.

Education boosts patient satisfaction

Let's imagine a better way. After explaining the surgery, Alice's surgeon sends in a nurse or physician assistant who explains how to prepare. In addition to the verbal explanation, this provider shares the following items:

  • General handout on preparing for surgery -- When to stop eating and drinking, a reminder to shower and leave valuables at home, information on how long the procedure will take and where loved ones can wait, and more.
  • Medication handout -- What to stop taking and, if necessary, start or do before the procedure, such as taking antibiotics by mouth at home.
  • Contact information for specific needs -- Whom should Alice call to confirm her surgery is still on for the next day? If she has a question about anesthesia? Billing?

The last page of each handout includes a few blank lines headed "Notes." Alice, the nurse or PA, or Alice's husband or daughter can write specific information directly on the handouts, so all the information is in one place. This also allows the clinic to personalize information for Alice -- demonstrating compassion and engagement -- and encourages her and her loved ones to play a more active role in preparing for surgery by asking questions and writing notes.

In a perfect world, these handouts are in a folder, perhaps with a pocket for the surgeon, nurse, or PA's business card. Keeping everything together helps patients manage anxiety in a situation -- waiting for surgery -- that places a high cognitive demand on them and their loved ones. Plus, an attractive folder with the surgery center or hospital's brand on it increases patient satisfaction by placing a positive reminder of care in the patient's home.

Education helps providers manage expectations

Cosmetic surgery and laser eye surgery clinics are usually very good at providing plenty of information because setting patient expectations is crucial to good word of mouth, happy patients and sometimes, not being sued. Do you expect to look like a celebrity after your rhinoplasty or have perfect vision after LASIK? Chances are, the doctor and clinic staff will talk with you before ever scheduling a procedure in order to set your expectations and select the best type of surgery, and you'll receive plenty of information in writing about what to expect (with pictures!).

It's a good idea to tell patients:

  • What they will feel, see, and hear when they arrive at the surgery center or clinic. The atmosphere is familiar and even homelike to you, but it can be frightening to the public.
  • How long they -- and their loved ones -- should expect to wait before, during, and after the procedure.
  • When they will probably go home, if there is a hospital stay.
  • How they will probably feel in the first days and weeks after surgery -- My friend Alice was quite disappointed to learn she would be feeling better in two or three months, rather than almost back to normal in a couple of weeks ... and she learned this several weeks after surgery, after spending several days in pain.
  • When it is reasonable to return to work and regular activities -- The Notes page comes in handy here, as you can discuss patients' specific activities and set expectations.

I have a maxim: Surgery time is longer than regular time. "It's been three months!" a friend said after major abdominal surgery. "When will my core strength come back?"

How do you educate your patients?

OK, talking about lawsuits and malpractice insurance isn't fun. But neither were Alice's confusion, frustration, and disappointment - and she is a "smart patient" who figured out as much as possible on her own.

Would you like to put some basic pre-procedure handouts together? Talk to a patient education consultant, of course! I'm here to help you find your practice's pain points -- where the process breaks down or patients don't understand. Having started my medical career in the trenches of private practices' front and back offices, and moved on to administrative work in a hospital, I know office staff get overwhelmed. I also know they want to do a great job if you give them the right tools and procedures to help patients.

I can help you identify your top priorities for patient education, revising and combining what you already use to create a great suite of materials in a cost-effective manner. Happier, better educated patients -- not to mention safer patients and smoother office procedures, and better word of mouth -- make the relatively modest investment well worth it.

If you just want to talk about patient education? Email me or call (503) 734-6853 to chat.

Book Reviews

Your summer thriller...

Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller, is the most anti-ageist book I've ever read. Was Sheldon, the protagonist, a file clerk or a sniper in the Korean War? In addition to having a brave, realistic, and hilarious hero, this book is a meditation on memory, the places we feel at home, displacement from one country to another, and the families we make. Medical communicators and marketers, read it to think about who our older adult patients, our veterans, and our immigrants and visitors really are.

Also, a novel that involves an East Coast Jewish veteran traipsing through the forests of Norway, relaxing a bit because his old enemy is a lot easier to spot in Scandinavia, is hilarious. Read it and find out why. And don't miss the heroic, amazing ending.

And for dog owners ...

The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, by Demian Dressler and Susan Ettinger. This book discusses conventional and complementary approaches to canine cancer. Some of the complementary information leans on supplements developed by Dr. Dressler, but if you have or know someone with a canine companion with cancer, it's a helpful resource. (Bonus points for citations, grouped by topic, in the back of the book and current information on specific cancer types and drugs.) A fine resource for any pet parent who appreciates evidence-based information delivered with compassion.

Some of the most valuable advice involves how to calm down and make the most of your beloved friend's quality of life. My Lab and office companion Carver has cancer now, and this book is a great source for answers and decision-making ideas. A moment of Zen from Carver below, reminding us that dogs live in the moment.

Summer Scheduling

July 13-23 - Vacation

August 10-12 - Presenting at University of Chicago Graham School's Medical Writing and Editing Certificate Program Open House, Chicago, Ill.

August 18 - Out of office

September 25-28 - Attending CBI's 2nd Annual Lay Summaries Summit: Improving Plain Language Processes, Writing and Distribution Methods, Philadelphia, Pa. (tentative)

Taking new projects to start July 24


Hello! I'm Dr. Genevieve Long. A medical communicator since 2002, I write and edit materials for patients and health care providers. I specialize in writing plain-language materials for patients and other health care consumers, using evidence-based health literacy principles.

I belong to the American Medical Writers Association and the Plain Language Association International. I also teach medical writing, editing, and freelance business courses through the University of Chicago's Graham School. In my spare time, I fly fish, walk my Labs, do yoga, and read -- mostly consumer health books and mystery novels.

Email me or call (503) 734-6853 to discuss your project. I'm always happy to hear from you!



New project?

Now scheduling through fall 2017! Writing, editing, and consulting for:

  • Patient and consumer materials -- Handouts, booklets, forms, questionnaires, insurance information, and more
  • Provider education and marketing materials -- Newsletters, fact sheets, web content, teaching materials and more

Email glong@genevievelong.com or call (503) 734-6853 to get those projects rolling!