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10 Ways Nurses and Nurse Leaders Can Improve Patient Education

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated August 29, 2022
    Patient education is essential for better patient outcomes. Discover tips to improve patient teaching from three expert nurses.
    Credit: Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

    Patient education is the key to long-term patient outcomes. Yet, nurses juggle many responsibilities. They often work on short-staffed units and care for patients with complex healthcare needs.

    It can be difficult to fit teaching into a crammed schedule. Nurses often need to think on their feet and teach patients under less than ideal circumstances.

    However, there are several ways to improve patient education. Three nursing experts discuss how hospitals can promote patient teaching and how nurses can include patient education in their skill set.

    A Nurses’ Role in Patient Education

    It is essential that hospital and nursing management value patient education because it can help build stronger patient outcomes. Nurses play an important role in patient education by increasing a patient’s knowledge and confidence in skills they will need after being released from the hospital. These skills can prepare a patient at discharge.

    One study found that patient education was influenced by economic barriers. The data also suggested managers should offer more support for educational development.

    Craig Laser has a background in clinical nursing and managerial roles. In his experience, patients may have received education before discharge, but this doesn’t guarantee patients fully understand, comprehend, or know what to do next, he says.

    Patient education is a learned skill. Nurses who are unfamiliar with strong teaching techniques may find continuing education for nurses helpful. Remember to take advantage of the resources you have in your unit, too. Ask to shadow an experienced nurse who can share their patient education tips and strategies.

    10 Ways Nurses and Nurse Leaders Can Improve Patient Education

    1. Keep It Simple

    Nurses and other healthcare professionals can speak in a language all their own. Myocardial infarction, cerebral embolism, dorsiflexion, and ganglion may all be everyday terms for a nurse but not for a patient. During patient education, these terms should be parked at the door.

    Avoid using medical terminology and abbreviations. For example, a CBC may seem simple enough, but make sure you use “complete blood count” for your patient.

    Keeping it simple also means not waiting till discharge to educate your patient. Patient education should begin during the initial assessment and continue until discharge.

    Providing education in bite-sized pieces also helps your patient retain more information. Retaining information can be challenging during stressful times but is especially important during these times in a patient’s life.

    2. Provide Educational Paperwork in Patient’s Native Language

    Health literacy rates are not linked with literacy rates. A person may have excellent comprehension skills yet still have difficulty understanding healthcare information to make informed decisions.

    Michelle Kotte, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, emphasizes the importance of providing healthcare paperwork in the patient’s native language. If language barriers impact patient care, you can use apps for nurses like MediBabble or even Google Translate to improve the quality of healthcare and patient education.

    Here are a few ways to make patient education easily understood.

    1. Relay the information and instructions for the patient clearly.
    2. Do not go in-depth into disease processes with a patient who is just learning about the disease.
    3. Make sure the information is written down so the patient can review it later as needed.
    4. Remember that the patient may be feeling overwhelmed by receiving too much information at once, so keep it simple.

    3. Consider a Patient’s Communication Barriers

    In addition to patients whose native language is not English, you may have patients with other communication barriers. Your patient education strategies should include teaching patients who have sensory impairments.

    Barriers may include sight or hearing impairment or those who have cognitive issues. Nurses can overcome communication barriers with planning, compassion, and patience.

    For example, you might have to rethink teaching a procedure like a dressing change. For individuals without a visual impairment, you can show where to place the tape. For visually impaired patients, you will need to talk through each step and demonstrate by touch.

    4. Use the Teach-Back Method

    Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DrNP, FNP-BC, advises nurses to use the “teach-back” method in their patient education. Kriebel-Gasparro is a faculty member at Walden University and holds credentials as a family and gerontological nurse practitioner.

    Despite evidence that the method is effective, many physicians do not use it. They cite time constraints or that patients may take offense as their reasons.

    “Make sure the patient understands that you are not trying to test them, but want to understand whether you have explained things so that they understand,” Kriebel-Gasparro advises.

    Another name for this method is “closing the loop.” After finishing a short bite of information, you can ask the patient to repeat it in their own words. For example, after explaining how insulin works in the body, you may say, “Just to be sure I was clear, could you tell me why you’ll be taking insulin?”

    Making sure your patient repeats back accurate information ensures they understand and allows you to fill any gaps in communication.

    5. Write Down Important Information

    When a patient struggles with pain, nausea, or breathing, they will have difficulty learning new concepts or remembering details. This is how the body responds to distress. Kotte advises nurses to write detailed instructions for patients to reference later to avoid valuable patient education getting lost.

    Nurses should also give patients phone numbers of people they can contact if they have questions. It is also helpful if patients have a family member with them, so someone else can help re-educate the patient if needed.

    6. Promote Health by Continuously Educating Patients

    Some of the lifestyle changes patients must make that promote health are challenging. Eating a healthier diet, quitting tobacco products, or reducing or eliminating alcohol will likely not change unless the patient is aware of how these behaviors affect their health and wellness. Patients may be in a precontemplative stage of change, says Kotte.

    “This means that at that time, they have no intention of changing behavior,” Kotte explains. “This can be an emotionally challenging experience as a nurse.”

    During this time, patients are often unaware or poorly understand how their behavior affects their health. Nurses play a role in helping move patients to the contemplative stage. During this time, patients become aware that the problem exists and begin to think they can overcome the issue.

    Through patient education and support, patients can be encouraged to make a plan and take action. In this role, nurses can promote health by continuously and compassionately educating patients.

    7. A Fully Staffed Floor Aids in Patient Education

    Nurse-to-patient ratios have a direct impact on patient safety, outcome, and education. A high ratio may compromise a nurse’s ability to provide safe care and will affect patient outcomes. Safe ratios are dependent on patient acuity, technology, monitoring, experience, and the physical layout of the unit.

    The importance of this factor led California to establish minimum ratios in 2004. To date:

    • 15 states have staffing regulations in place
    • Eight states require hospitals to have staffing committees

    Kriebel-Gasparro encourages nurses to take action if they find themselves short-staffed. Options include:

    Taking advantage of nursing organizations is also an option. For instance, in Pennsylvania a group called the Nurses of PA is advocating on behalf of nurses and patients. It is a grassroots organization that has banded together to contact legislators to change laws for safe staffing in hospitals.

    8. Telehealth Increases Education Opportunities for Nurses

    The role of telehealth nursing services grew significantly during the pandemic, and it is here to stay. Nurses must develop solutions to promote the use of technology.

    There are some telehealth limitations with patient education, such as communicating over a camera. Healthcare professionals and telehealth nurses need to become comfortable with the technology and practice telehealth communication skills.

    Telehealth can increase access to care and patient education. Telehealth offers the opportunity to provide health screenings, patient education, and discuss the importance of vaccinations.

    Kriebel-Gasparro is excited by the option to expand patient care to greater geographic areas. She also likes how technology can be used for various aspects of patient care such as Medicare assessments and psychiatry.

    “One of the benefits of telehealth is the education on health, diseases, and screenings that nurses can provide,” she says.

    9. Manage Expectations for Change

    Clinical nurses work in a high-stress environment, and many have experienced nurse burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. It’s often triggered by long hours caring for patients with poor outcomes, a perceived lack of control, and not enough support. The consequences of burnout include a stressed immune system, overwhelming fatigue, and anxiety.

    One way to deal with nurse burnout is to manage your expectations for patient outcomes. It’s vital to educate your patients to motivate them to choose a healthier lifestyle. But Kotte cautions that you can do this without becoming personally involved in your patient’s outcome.

    By acknowledging your patient may not be ready to make changes, “we are able to better manage our expectations and ultimately provide the best patient care,” she says.

    10. Provide Educational Content in Various Forms

    Every person has a learning style. Your learning style increases the amount of information you can absorb and use in your decision-making.

    There are four basic learning styles.

    eye1. Visual Learners

    • Absorb by seeing and observing
    • Do best with diagrams, flow charts, pictures, and written instruction

    volume-up2. Auditory Learners

    • Retain more information from speaking than from written information
    • Can reinforce the information by saying it out loud
    • Benefit from the “teach-back” method

    hand3. Kinesthetic/Tactile Learners

    • Experience things through touch, like handling equipment
    • Might struggle to sit through demonstrations

    pencil-alt4. Reading and Writing Learners

    • Can be similar to visual learners
    • Understand content best when expressed with words

    As you are preparing to engage your patient, ask them how they learn best. Most people know if they want a lecture, material to read, or equipment to learn.

    By meeting your patient’s needs, you can improve their level of patient education and possibly their outcome. Laser advises nurses to think broadly about the types of educational material they may use.

    “Some patients may prefer a multimedia approach to support their learning needs,” he says. “Some patients may need a video format to maximize their learning. What about text messages, Instagram pictorials, or a Tik Tok format?”

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DrNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC

    Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DrNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC

    Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, faculty member in Walden University’s master of science in nursing program, has more than 26 years of experience in nursing and is credentialed as both a family and gerontological nurse practitioner. Kriebel-Gasparro is a current member of the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association and previously served on the Rare Disease Advisory Council for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Health.

    Portrait of Michelle Kotte, DNP, PMHNP-BC

    Michelle Kotte, DNP, PMHNP-BC

    Michelle Kotte is a faculty member in Walden University’s master of science in nursing program. She practices as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Emerald Psychiatry in Dublin, Ohio. Kotte has taught assessment, pathophysiology, and psychiatric nursing in online, in-person, and hybrid courses.

    Portrait of Craig Laser, Ed.D., BSN, RN

    Craig Laser, Ed.D., BSN, RN

    Craig Laser is a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University within the master of global management in healthcare services program. Laser has worked as a clinical nurse, nurse leader, and consultant. His clinical background includes critical care nursing, emergency/trauma nursing, and critical care transport/flight nursing. Laser’s interests include the practice of leadership, workforce dynamics, and cultural transformation.

    Reviewed by

    Portrait of Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, CCRN, RN

    Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, CCRN, RN

    Shri Deshaies is a nurse educator with over 20 years of experience teaching in hospital, nursing school, and community settings. Deshaies’ clinical area of expertise is critical care nursing and she is a certified critical care nurse. She has worked in various surgical ICUs throughout her career, including cardiovascular, trauma, and neurosurgery.

    Page last reviewed November 28, 2021. Shri Deshaies is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. Learn more about our review partners here.