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How to Teach so Patients Can Learn Immediately

Marie Biancuzzo and brunette woman sitting at a table.

Most of us who have been in healthcare for a while know our stuff. However, teaching what we know involves a different skill set. Certainly, we could all get advanced degrees to help us with the fine art of teaching. But I’d like to offer just a few tips on how healthcare professionals can teach so patients can learn.  

Avoid jargon

This probably goes without saying, but yeah, very few of our clients have any idea what we’re saying when we start speaking medicalese. Some words, phrases, or abbreviations may seem obvious, but many do not. Consider some jargon related to newborn or maternal care:

  • edema (swelling)
  • cephalhematoma (bruise)
  • hypothermia (cold; chilly)
  • transient tachypnea (fast breathing)
  • fractured clavicle (broken collarbone)

You know as well as I do that these words or phrases represent only the tip of the iceberg. Try to keep it simple.  

Listen and establish rapport

If we want to teach so patients can learn, we need to focus on the World Health Organization’s directive: “listen and learn.” Often, this will provide us with instant cues about what clients feel they need to learn, or, what we assumed they learned (but actually didn’t).

A helpful article from MedLinePlus begins by saying that “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).”

Further, the article reminds us not to start teaching until we do these steps:

  • gather clues
  • get to know the patient
  • establish rapport
  • gain trust
  • determine the patient’s readiness to learn
  • learn the patient’s perspective
  • ask the right questions
  • learn about the patient’s skills
  • involve others
  • take time to establish rapport

Interestingly, the article gives the tip about rapport not only once, but twice. I think you’ll quickly agree that it’s not just establishing rapport. It’s also about building rapport, both with the client and the family. This is a major requirement if we want to teach so patients can learn. 

Stick to the content

Let’s face it. Sometimes we all get wound up on our own agendas, or we digress by giving information that is unimportant, too detailed, or just plain tangential. I admit, I’m guilty of this. I want to teach a mother everything she needs to know about mothering from now until the baby is 18 years old. I have to stop myself. If you find yourself doing that, remember to put on the brakes.

Explaining bodily processes or disease processes

Often, the physician has given a reasonable description of what’s wrong, and why. But often, clients are too stunned or frightened to listen. As the nurse, I may or may not have heard the physician’s description. A big part of my job is to teach so patients can learn, and I hence I need to re-explain.

Using analogies

If you want to teach so patients can learn, consider using an analogy. Helen Osborne says analogies start with a concept the client already understands. She gives several examples, including:

  • “High cholesterol is like hair that clogs up your drain.”
  • “Menopause is like … [how] trees change colors in autumn – although you know it’s going to happen, it happens at the different times for different trees.”
  • “Using antibiotics for viruses is like using a large net to catch minnows. They just go through the holes.”

I often use analogies to explain how the body works, and yet provide a take-home message. For example, I explain skin-to-skin care as the “heat source,” and most parents understand that. Similarly, I use the “thermometer” analogy when trying to explain the body’s negative feedback loop.

Realizing that “teaching” is not enough

Amireh Ghorob, MPH wrote a very interesting article emphasizing that “teaching,” although necessary, is not sufficient and that we must often, if not always:

  • help clients to be highly aware of the goal they are trying to achieve  
  • ensure that the client actually understands what we have “taught”
  • accept that information-giving doesn’t necessarily evoke changes in patient behavior
  • recognize even when they understand, only 1/3 of clients are compliant with their medications

Recognize that we can all teach so patients can learn

I’ve gotten better at it over the years. But honestly, I hope to be better at it tomorrow than I am today!

What techniques have you found helpful to teach so patients can learn? Have you found techniques that haven’t been effective? Share your experiences in the comments section below!

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  1. Dawn Stang

    I use things like saying the breast is the “ breastaurant” and to bring the baby to the table- use your upper arm as a “fence” to help support the breast.
    The “hamburger” hold when using the football position and the “taco” hold when teaching a mom the “u” shape (if breasts are large and baby needs a little help) There’s just a few I have learned along the way.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Ah yes. I know about “hamburger” hold (also called “sandwich hold) and “taco hold.” However, the “Breastaurant” is new to me. Ha! I love it! I usually tell moms to “put the baby in the kitchen” (meaning, get him out of the crib or wherever he is) but I think I love the idea of a “breastaurant”. Thank you, Dawn, you put a smile on my face this morning!

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