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Communicating with patients

Patient education allows patients to play a bigger role in their own care. It also aligns with the growing movement toward patient- and family-centered care.

To be effective, patient education needs to be more than instructions and information. Teachers and health care providers need to be able to assess patient needs and communicate clearly.

The success of 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)

Often, the first step is to find out what the patient already knows. Use these guidelines to do a thorough assessment before starting patient education:

  • Gather clues. Talk to the health care team members and observe the patient. Be careful not to make assumptions. Patient teaching based on incorrect assumptions may not be very effective and may take more time.
  • Get to know your 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 a rapport. Make eye contact when appropriate and help your patient feel comfortable with you. Pay attention to the person's concerns.
  • Gain trust. Show respect and treat each person with compassion and without judgment.
  • Determine your patient's readiness to learn. Ask your patients about their outlooks, attitudes, and motivations.
  • Learn the patient's perspective. Talk to the patient about worries, fears, and possible misconceptions. The information you receive can help guide your patient teaching.
  • Ask the right questions. Ask if the patient has concerns -- not just questions. Use open-ended questions that require the patient to reveal more details. Listen carefully. The patient's answers will help you learn the person's core beliefs. This will help you understand the patient's motivation and let you plan the best ways to teach.
  • 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 what the patient may have learned from other health care providers. The teach-back method is a way to confirm that you have explained the information in a way that the patient they understands. Also, find out what skills the patient may still need to develop.
  • Involve others. Ask if the patient wants other people involved with the care process. 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 barriers and limitations. You may perceive barriers to education, and the patient may confirm them. Some factors, such as low health literacy may be more subtle and harder to recognize.
  • Take time to establish rapport. Do a comprehensive assessment. It's worth it, because your patient education efforts will be more effective.


Falvo DR. Effective Patient Education: A Guide to Increased Adherence. 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: chap. 8.

Update Date: 2/4/2014

Updated by: 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, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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