Communicating with patients

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Patient education is crucial today, especially with patients playing a bigger role in their own care and the growing movement toward patient- and family-centered care.

But education is more than just giving a patient instructions and information. To be effective patient teachers, health care providers need to have assessment skills and be able to communicate clearly.

Assessment -- a Set-up for Success

The success of your patient education depends largely on how well you assess your patient’s:

  • Needs
  • Concerns
  • Readiness to learn
  • Preferences
  • Support

Barriers and limitations (such as physical and mental capacity, and low health literacy)

It may help to think about starting with what the patient already knows about their condition.

Use these guidelines to do a thorough assessment before starting patient education:

Gather clues:Find out what you can about your patient from other health care team members and from observing the patient. But be careful about making assumptions. Patient teaching based on incorrect assumptions may not be very effective and may take more time.

Get to know the patient: Introduce yourself and explain your role in your patient’s care, review their medical record, and ask basic “get to know you” questions.

Establish rapport: Make eye contact when appropriate, help your patient feel comfortable with you, and pay attention to their concerns.

Gain trust: Show respect and treat each person with compassion and without judgment.

Determine readiness to learn: Find out what you can about your patient’s outlook, attitude, and motivation.

Learn the patient’s perspective: Find out about your patient’s potential worries, fears, and possible misconceptions. The information you receive may help guide your patient teaching.

Ask the right questions: Don’t just ask the patient if they have questions; ask if they have concerns. Try using open-ended questions, requiring your patient to reveal more details. Listen carefully. The patient’s answers to your questions will help you uncover your patient’s core beliefs, show you what motivates them, and help you plan the best ways to teach them.

Learn about the patient’s skills: Find out what your patient already knows. You may want to use the “teach-back” method (also called the “show-me method” or “closing the loop”) to figure out if prior teaching was effective or what the patient may have learned from other health care providers. Teach-back is a way to confirm that you have explained to your patient what they need to know in a manner that they understand. Also, find out what skills your patient may need to develop.

Involve others: Find out if your patient wants to involve others in their care. It is possible that the person who volunteers to be involved in your patient’s care may not be the person your patient prefers to be involved. Learn about the support available to your patient.

Identify barriersand limitations: You may perceive barriers to education, and your patient may confirm them. Your patient may disclose additional barriers to learning, making changes in their care, following instructions, or mastering skills. Keep in mind that some limitations, such as low health literacy, are more subtle and may be harder to recognize.

Take time to establish rapport and communicate well with your patients. Do a comprehensive assessment. It’s worth it, because your patient education efforts will be more effective.


Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 3/3/2012
  • Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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