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Being in the know

Is the industry doing enough to ensure its patient education programmes really deliver?

Blue bulbOver the past few years, much has been written about putting patients at the heart of their healthcare, and patient choice is central to many governments' thinking. In the UK, 'no decision about me without me' is the new mantra. However, patient choice is reliant on accurate and accessible information that enables people to become better educated about their diseases and puts them in the driving seat to improve their own health.

Mainstream availability of the internet and social media has supported the empowered patient and will continue to do so. Multiple information formats that meet personal preference, the ability for social interaction and the sheer accessibility of the internet are just three factors supporting the empowered patient, while the ability of the internet to deliver blended learning is a fourth.

Learning and communication
The basic premise is this; how people learn is critical in the healthcare communication chain of events. If a patient doesn't personally relate to or engage with the information that is being communicated, the danger is that nothing happens – the information simply exists as data that is ignored, discarded or, even worse, misunderstood. 

Learning preferences need to be considered when constructing patient education programmes if patients are to be supported in their informed decision-making. Whether supporting advocacy group disease-awareness materials, delivering digital solutions or supporting health professionals in their patient discussions about persistence and concordance to a treatment, simply pushing information at patients is no longer enough.

Back to school
So what exactly should healthcare agencies know about learning to support development of patient education programmes? Antoinette Dale Henderson, MD of Zomi Communications, a specialist health training consultancy, said: "The topic of learning is a complex one, because learning is so personal to the individual. People learn many things in many ways and from a variety of sources. However, if the best outcomes are to be achieved, agencies need to consider the broad spectrum of learning preferences as a part of their planning.

"Key to health learning is interactivity, underpinned by engaging and informative messages and materials. For maximum impact, it is important to create a learning environment that is rich in use of all the senses. A patient education programme that incorporates visual imagery, the spoken word and elements that appeal to people's emotional and physical feelings will be far more effective than a one-dimensional campaign. 

"This kind of interactivity can take many forms, such as reviewing and interpreting information on the web, watching a narrative video, attending a patient Q&A seminar, participating in solving a problem with a doctor, or seeking others' opinion via social networking sites. Incorporating a wide variety of blended approaches which support interactivity can add real value to patient programmes."

One sector that truly understands the importance of learning preferences and interactivity is the drug misuse agencies, where superior communication, education and support are critical for treatment success.

Commenting on the importance of interactive communication, Colin McGregor-Paterson, CEO of Oasis, a specialist drug and alcohol support charity, says: "Effective intervention in the drug treatment sector requires an integrated and collaborative approach to service-user management.

"This needs to be supported by the use of engaging information that is consistently communicated through all our service users' 'touch points' such as drop-in posters and leaflets, text services, Facebook, their case worker, partner, doctor or dispensing pharmacist. This high level of interaction ensures our clients hear, assimilate and learn from the information provided, all of which result in improved treatment outcomes."

Putting learning into practice

Incorporating learning preferences into planning is a relatively easy process and can be captured in five steps.

1. Understand patients' attitudes and behaviours
Having identified target audiences, there is a range of information sources that provide basic patient demographic data. This includes age, gender, social class, earnings, educational attainment, home ownership, employment status, media consumption and internet usage. Overlaid on to this could be attitudinal and lifestyle data in relation to the management of specific conditions. However, to truly understand the patient perspective, interviews with patients and third-party groups can provide unique insights into attitudes, learning styles, information needs and, crucially, whom they turn to in support of their informed decision-making. 

In addition to interviews, market research agencies can be briefed to collate bespoke patient data, while observation of patient blogs and websites such as Patients Like Me and disease-specific sites can offer valuable insight.

2. Understand the impact of the wider environment on a patient
Patient behaviour, uptake and response to health information are influenced by many factors. An appreciation of these can provide additional insight. In addition, it can help identify other programme partners who may interact with patients, eg, social services or housing associations, that are in regular contact with hundred of thousands of people with complex health needs.

3. Explore and appreciate the patient journey and touch points
Mapping the patient journey through both the 'information highway' and the healthcare system is critical to:
Understand the challenges faced by patients 
Identify 'touch points' where they seek, or could seek, information and where interactive learning could be considered. Putting yourself into the shoes of a patient is one approach to achieving this. 

4. Develop engaging messages and blended approaches
Relevant and credible messages will engage and inform patients, while well researched approaches to delivering these will support their learning. Patients should be put at the heart of programming, and PR, medical education and digital approaches built around this. 

5. Validate the approach
Testing the programme messages, materials and approaches is a critical component to any communication programme. This should involve patients, advocacy groups and healthcare providers.

Patients have a pivotal role in improving their health outcomes, and the industry has a critical role in supporting better patient-informed decision-making. This requires more than the provision of information alone, and patient learning preferences should be considered for every patient education programme. While this may require a return to the school desk for many healthcare communicators, what better place is there to learn?

The Author
Mike Kan is global head of health at Cohn & Wolfe and can be contacted at

Neil McGregor-Paterson is director of NMcP Strategy Associates and can be contacted at 

To comment on this article, email

Join the Communiqué discussion on LinkedIn 

1st June 2011


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