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Patient Education: Lessons from the Indiana AMWA Conference

Patient Education: Lessons from the Indiana AMWA Conference

Guest post by Sam Clapp

As a writer and editor, I’ve worked on textbooks, pamphlets, web copy, magazine articles, and online courses, so I know firsthand the difficulty of communicating cogently to diverse audiences. There are a number of issues facing the writer who wants an audience to pay attention. People have ever-higher standards for the entertainment value of the content they read, competition from online educational resources is always growing, and then there’s the most fundamental problem of all: readers get bored! I’m keenly aware of these issues in writing for a general audience, but my roundtable discussion on patient education at the 2015 Indiana Chapter American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Conference brought into focus an area where being understood is even more crucial. Medical writers who work in patient education write the medication information, disclaimers, and pamphlets we all use whenever we visit the doctor, research a medical condition, or begin a course of treatment. For patient educators, lives hang in the balance.

One of the first things we discussed at the AMWA patient education roundtable was the difficulty of keeping reading level appropriate to all patients. Elaine Crabtree, the discussion leader and a Senior Medical Writer at PAREXEL, told us how her team is tasked with keeping medication information at an eighth-grade reading level. The writers are not legally allowed to test out informational materials on actual readers before publication, so the team has to feed the text through a computer program that estimates difficulty. The program is riddled with glitches (mistaking periods in abbreviations for periods at the ends of sentences, for example), which frequently leads to a misappraisal of the reading level. The group’s best option, unfortunately, is to pass copy around the team and attempt to discern whether or not any words would be incomprehensible to an eighth-grader.

One member of the roundtable brought up her work calling cancer patients to routinely inform them of the details of their treatment. For the most part, the patients have been in treatment for a while and have heard the information a dozen times before. This anecdote points to the major difficulty of patient education: even if you perfect the text, people won’t necessarily pay attention. For one thing, patients receiving education are frequently afraid and confused. They may have just received a scary or unexpected diagnosis, and even the most educated and inquisitive patients can blank out while receiving an initial diagnosis or prescription. Another major problem for patient educators is that people simply don’t like to read large masses of text. So often, medical conditions and drug information are explained in long pamphlets with small text. Even the most literate patients drift off or quit reading during a long, boring pamphlet full of possible side effects. And that is if they look at the document at all.

How can patient educators address the problems of reading level, patient fear, and audience disengagement? There’s no easy answer because patient education is a field governed by an intricate network of legal requirements and medical necessities. Pharmaceutical documents, for example, will always be long and ungainly: there is simply no way to provide all the relevant side effects and considerations without spelling them out at length. The roundtable group did have some ideas for improving patient engagement, though. Several participants emphasized the importance of clear, concise writing. Good writing translates to readers of all levels, so patient educators have to strive for a high level of excellence. Writers at the roundtable also emphasized the importance of using graphics in communicating to patients with different learning styles. Patient educators should develop some graphic communication skills to help reach visual learners and others with principally nonverbal intelligences.

The later part of our roundtable discussion focused on new directions in patient education. Members of the group raised the possibility of providing patients with short educational videos in addition to written information. Videos might help engage visual, kinesthetic, and aural learners, but it’s still hard to ensure that patients will take the time to watch. One member of the roundtable mentioned the possibility of providing video education to patients at physicians’ offices. A part of a patient’s doctor visit could involve a few minutes of video education about disease prevention and treatment.

No matter the new forms that patient education takes in the coming years, the essential job of patient education will remain the same: communicate effectively to a diverse, non-specialist audience. Medical writers are in the unique position of consuming as well as writing medical texts. We know firsthand the feelings of confusion that confront readers when they are forced to interpret jargon-laced medical documents. As medical writers, we can channel this empathic understanding of readers’ needs to produce clearer, more engaging patient education materials.


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