Patient Education is Changing — Are You?

As more and more patients go online to find health information, some healthcare associations, such as the American Diabetes Association, are facilitating peer-to-peer education.

Let’s start with the assumption that there has been a major paradigm shift in patient education over the past 10 years.

Six in 10 U.S. adults gather health info online, and one in five have gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to theirs.

For centuries, people looked to their doctors for advice on their health. Later healthcare teams grew, and we sought advice from many healthcare professionals including specialists, nurses, health educators, nutritionists, pharmacists, and many others.

Then along comes the internet, and now it is easy for us to research medical and wellness information online as well as reach out to others who share a similar condition or experience. Just as we look for advice from our peers before buying a new cell phone, we want to know what others have experienced before agreeing to a medical procedure or self-treating an illness.

According to the Pew Internet Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, 75 percent of adults and 95 percent of teenagers now have internet access. Six in 10 U.S. adults gather health info online, and one in five have gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to theirs (one in four for those with chronic conditions).

So does this relieve healthcare professionals of their responsibility to educate patients? Absolutely not.

Back when I was responsible for diabetes.org at the American Diabetes Association, we worked a long time to convince the scientific and medical folks that there was value in peer-to-peer education for people with diabetes and their caregivers.

The fear was that these people would share inaccurate and potentially dangerous information. But the reality was that people needed emotional support as much if not more than medical information from others with whom they could relate.  And when they did it wrong, others jumped in to correct them.

When we opened the flood gates, we saw over a million message views a month on our discussion boards.

According to the Pew Internet Project research, nine out of 10 U.S. adults say health professionals are more helpful than fellow patients, friends, and family when it comes to getting an accurate medical diagnosis. And yet, ironically, they may have less time than ever to provide this guidance and instruction.

I would like to challenge healthcare associations to look for innovative ways to support their members’ efforts to provide meaningful patient education. Here are a few ideas for starters:

  • Take advantage of mobile technologies. Almost everyone has or will soon have a smartphone.  QR codes can be used to refer patients to reliable information that you make available. How about QR code stickers to attach to prescription pads?
  • Make available patient information sheets that members can personalize with their contact info and an optional instruction for their patient.
  • Organize member volunteers to participate in online patient discussions on your Facebook page. Facebook is one of the most trusted places for peer-to-peer knowledge exchange.
  • Provide a text message service to remind patients to take their medications, exercise regularly, or schedule a follow-up visit.

I know that you will come up with much better ideas if you examine the barriers to patient education today and leverage the technologies available to overcome some of them.

Join Frank Fortin, CAE, and me for a learning session titled “Physician Expectations for Mobile Computing” at ASAE’s 2012 Healthcare Associations Conference, Nov. 8-9, in Chicago.


(Illustration by Ernie Smith)

Rick Johnston, CAE

By Rick Johnston, CAE

Rick Johnston, CAE, is principal and association practice lead for ICF Ironworks, and is based in Glen Allen, Virginia. MORE

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