The internet is full of health and medical information. Patients can get lost in this plethora of data, both science-based and snake-oil focused. Some mythological medical “cures” can sound hopeful to the sick and suffering while more scientific sources seem unsound. So, where is a patient to find the most accurate and current education in this age of Doctor Google? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question and the simple fact is that there need to be better resources available.
When writing patient references, many recommend the authors to aim at a sixth grade reading level. But, have you talked to a sixth grader recently? My son read the original Moby Dick when he was in third grade. Many health resources are written at a Sesame Street level. Yes, we need material that is readable for all people. But, the intelligence of these people is often underestimated in doing so. Patients want to know everything, even if they don’t understand it. If there is a genetic defect that can possibly cause their disease, they want to know what it might be. They may not understand the genetics behind genetic mutations, but they have a scientific knowledge they can now search, whether they do so through Doctor Google or their own personal physicians.
How can patient educational materials be made more meaningful?
- Patient educational materials need to be kicked up several reading levels. Patients are educated consumers and are reading many sources of information. When they find more educated sounding references from less dubious sources, it is easy to think that those are the smarter information base. With all the wrong information available, we are competing to get the correct information into patients’ hands.
- Materials need to be more inclusive. Many references try to keep the information very basic. But, in doing so, relevant information can be over-looked. Maybe most patients don’t want to know every genetic mutation that can lead to breast cancer. But, some do. It is better to put in too much information where the patient can decide what they want to consider than allowing a missed opportunity to give a patient facts they may want or need. Not all diabetics want to know how incretins and other neurohormonal factors work. But sources should be readily available for those who do.
- Materials need to be more current. Much patient educational materials are out-dated. In fact, many are written and then never again updated. Medical discoveries are being made all the time. If we ignore that, our material simply becomes history and patients will move on to more current sources, whether they are scientific or not.
- Materials need to be more graphic. We have all heard the phrase “a picture is worth a 1000 words”. And it is true. Explaining how high cholesterol is harmful may not be as effective as showing a patient a picture of a clogged artery. Many of us are using graphics in our every day online communications. If you doubt this, just go to Facebook or twitter and check out the GIF bar.
- Materials need to be free of commercial influence. If you are reading health information on any site that is also trying to sell you products, that site is not evidence-based. It is a commercial site for profit. People are paid to write health information that sounds good and to try to convince you to buy their product. Likewise, if pharmaceutical companies produce patient educational materials, they need to not contain marketing for any of their products. Years ago, this was not the case but under the Sunshine Act, this is now the law. In the past, these companies used to be a big source of patient education materials. However, these products have largely vanished.
- Materials need to be written by experts. Many people are writing health-related topics these days. It is easy to do a scientific literature search and find material. However, these results need to be interpreted and held up to the standard of current medical practice. Some medications are used off-label. Some medications are not recommended to be used for their intended purposes except in extreme circumstances. Only an expert will know the current standard of medical practice.
Doctor Google may be the most knowledgable doctor ever, but possessing large data bases does not equate to wisdom. Anyone can pontificate on the intricacies of healthcare, but not everyone can do so giving evidence-based facts. Unless, those responsible for producing patient education step up their game, Doctor Google will continue down the path of poorly educating the masses.
Photo credit: http://atforum.com/patient-education-brochures/
© 2017, Linda Girgis MD. All rights reserved.