The Art and Science of Patient Education

By the early 20th century, human populations started to boom. People began and continue to enjoy longer, healthier lives. Yet, living longer increases the likelihood of facing and living with physical and mental illnesses, medical conditions, and diseases of all kinds. This increased risk creates a growing concern for individuals, families, and communities and an enormous challenge for our healthcare system.

Patient education is one of the key components that can help foster change and improve upon our current healthcare landscape. Patient education can provide the right information, resources, and support that help ease the burden on our healthcare system and enable patients to improve their health.

However, our current healthcare system lacks the tools and training for healthcare professionals to be prepared to engage, educate, and empower patients to be health literate, make informed decisions, understand their health concerns and treatment options, and take more initiative in their self-care.

It is also incumbent upon us as healthcare marketers to take on the role of patient educators. This is not only a vital responsibility but also an opportunity to improve outcomes by creating an environment where patients can be engaged, informed, and motivated to be fully involved in their own care.

What Are The Key Components Of Patient Education?

Every patient education opportunity begins by understanding and mapping the patient journey. Certified health education specialists help lead this initiative by providing insights into the current medical paradigm and helping to identify key stakeholders and their roles and interrelationships.

Stakeholders may be the patients themselves, caregivers, and the healthcare professionals who treat, counsel, and support these patients. This insight mining enables us to see where patients are along their care continuum and to identify challenges, barriers, needs, and points of intervention.

Once the stakeholders’ needs and points of intervention have been identified, a strategic tactical plan can be developed.

The goal is to develop interventional strategies that engage, educate, and motivate shifts in behavior among the key stakeholders to optimize the patient’s disease management and treatment outcome.

To be effective, patient educators must ask several key questions:

Who is the target audience?

What is their sex and age group, how do they use technology, and what avenues do they use for obtaining healthcare? How can we connect with them? It may be a website with pages that feature colors, graphics, and information that speaks to them and at first glance whispers, “Welcome—you belong here.”

What are they thinking about?

Are they wondering about their diagnosis, do they know what it really means? How can we help to instill knowledge? It may be a patient easel with a dry-erase board that enables their physician to draw an anatomically correct illustration to show them exactly where their cancer is and that says, “I will show you—so that you can understand.”

What are they feeling?

Are they feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed? How can we provide comfort and lessen distorted thinking? It may be in the information within the introductory paragraph of a patient brochure that notes the prevalence of people living with the patient’s same rare disease, or it can be the list of resources in the back of the brochure that includes websites to visit for online support that lets them know, “You are not alone.”

What do they need to know?

Does our audience understand what is happening in their bodies and why? How can we engage and inform them? It may be a 3D animation that tours the cardiovascular system and shows them how plaques form to narrow arteries and that says, “Now you know and don’t have to imagine anymore.”

The Creative Process

Creative deliverables are born of our collective patient insights. We capture and distill truths about patients, brands, society, and culture into one motivating core insight. This core insight and the competitive landscape are what identify the space a brand or initiative can own. This is the foundation on which creative strategies and efforts are built.

From this foundation, the creative team applies their graphic design and interpersonal communication skills. They work, knowing that they may never personally meet these patients but understanding that nonetheless, these patients are figuratively our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. They are motivated by the knowledge that they are helping to make a difference in the lives of others every day. Each day’s efforts are focused on being a virtual hand, reaching out in what may be a dark and confusing time in a person’s life—and being there in the form of educational materials, tools, and resources to help navigate complex and unfamiliar territory.

Design Starts With a Feeling

For design, it starts with a feeling. The color palette sets the tone. Is it warm and friendly? Cool and confident? Every choice matters.

I am humbled by the talent I see among the designers and medical illustrators in our field. From them I have learned that to be an artist is to see things as if for the very first time. For example, a tree trunk is not always brown, and, frankly, patients don’t want to look like patients. For those of us who are not artists, we often go through life anticipating what we are going to see but we often miss what is actually there. Design matters. A lot. People see before they read. If we make it flat, we have failed—there are dimensions to life.

Language, on the other hand, is linear and sequential. It is one of the most compelling things we experience. Medical writers use it to guide patients, foster understanding, and shift behaviors toward better health outcomes. Effective communication may get the point across, but our writers strive for meaningful communication that resonates. That’s what health literacy is all about.

The creative process explores solution-based steps to best manage content, creative elements, audience engagement, and ease of use.

Future Trends

To be involved in patient education is to be “in the know.” With the healthcare industry moving toward a system based on patient satisfaction and quality outcomes, patients are fast becoming the center of care. As a result, healthcare marketing will increasingly target patients and consumers and look to engage with them outside of the traditional office setting. Furthermore, this has become the time of the empowered patient. Patients are looking at healthcare similarly as they would other consumer goods and services. In fact, according to Pew Research, one in every three American adults has gone online to research a medical condition, and about half of Internet users search for information about doctors and other healthcare professionals.1 I know I speak for my employees as well as many of my industry colleagues in saying that as healthcare marketers, we not only help educate patients but also empower them. We are proud to be making a difference in patients’ lives, and we will continue to make positive contributions toward patient-centric healthcare solutions.

Resources:

1. Health Online 2013. Pew Research Center website. http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/01/15/health-online-2013. Accessed August 7, 2016.

  • Joe Poggi

    Joe Poggi is Managing Director at Artcraft Health. For over 20 years, Joe has driven health education projects through partnerships in all sectors of the healthcare industry and currently at Artcraft Health, a full-service agency specializing in innovative educational solutions for patients and professionals.

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