With direct-to-consumer drug ads, media coverage of health matters, and the Internet, patients have access to more sources of information about illnesses, procedures, and medications than ever — and some of it is even accurate. But for your patients to get the most out of your treatment, they need to follow the instructions they get from you.
That means the information you provide should be comprehensive and understandable. If your handouts answer most common questions, patients will be less likely to seek information elsewhere. It’s great when patients are active and interested in their own care, but consulting the Web can be risky if the advice they find isn’t in sync with the treatment they’re getting from you.
Your handouts also need to reflect current best practices. Developments from medical research can get a lot of media exposure, and if your patient has a condition that shows up on the evening news, you can bet he’ll know about the latest development.
It’s the rare woman over 40, for example, who hasn’t heard about the 2002 finding that hormone replacement therapy increased, rather than decreased, the risk of breast cancer, heart attack, and stroke in postmenopausal women. An HRT handout that doesn’t take account of that finding may undermine a patient’s confidence in her doctor’s advice.
Even a controversy that’s been resolved may need to be addressed in your handout if the media attention was widespread. For instance, the American Academy of Family Physicians’ patient information sheet on childhood vaccines deftly handles the fear that vaccines are implicated in the onset of autism. In just a few words, the handout acknowledges the concern and explains that research does not bear it out.
Your handout also needs to reflect what you actually do. Too often a practice will keep using an old form with the out-of-date information crossed out and the new instructions scribbled in the margin. This invites patient misunderstanding. If you change your common recommendations, change your handout.
Sources for Handout Help
Most practices don’t have the resources to craft their own patient handouts for every occasion. You may want to customize sheets for your most common diagnoses, procedures, and treatment plans, but there are plenty of sources for high-quality information you can adapt or use outright.
The AAFP patient information Web site is a massive collection of background information sheets on common conditions, preventive care, health insurance, and other common patient health questions. The sheets are written and reviewed by physicians and patient educators at the AAFP, and are updated regularly. This is a site you can safely refer your patients to, as well; the advice is unlikely to conflict with the recommendations you make in any specific case.
The Journal of the American Medical Association’s Patient Page is another good and comprehensive source of patient handouts on nearly 400 topics. The full text of most of the handouts is only available to subscribers, so this is not a site to send your patients to.
Many specialty societies also offer high-quality handouts intended for patients. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons’ publication, Neurosurgery Today, covers the major neurological conditions and treatments with camera-ready information sheets.
The American College of Rheumatology and the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals have produced a Patient Education page featuring a collection of well-illustrated handouts on 22 rheumatic diseases, common medications used to treat them, and background sheets on treatments, prevention, and the different caregivers that may be involved. They’re written and reviewed by doctors, frequently updated, and available in printer-friendly form.
There are also commercial vendors of patient information materials. In addition to handouts, many offer booklets, Internet sites, and video presentations, but they can be pricey. For example, Medical Multimedia Group’s proprietary eOrthopod.com is a good orthopedic patient information collection. But access to it requires a subscription, which starts at $59.95 per month for practices of one to two providers — and goes up from there. Vendors can produce customized content, but that can be even more expensive.
A less costly source of help may be one of the hospitals you’re affiliated with, a local health plan, or your state medical society. But whatever resources you draw upon, make a plan to review your materials regularly.
If you have a favorite source of patient handouts, assign someone on your staff to check that source for updates once a month (sites like the AAFP have a “What’s New” section that makes this easy).
If you have a lot of handouts from a number of different sources, set up a review cycle. One easy method is to look at the materials filed under two or three letters of the alphabet each month, which will get you through your collection once a year.
The burden of review does not need to fall entirely on the physicians. It can be shared among clinical staff, or be the responsibility of a designated patient educator, if you have one.
Materials about referrals, tests, insurance, and office policies should be reviewed by the staff members who know the most about them, front office or back.
If you’re conscientious about the review cycle, there will be only a few occasions during the year when you have to update something out of turn; for instance, if you change the testing facility to which you refer.
And add one more handout to your repertory, if you haven’t already: a list of those Web sites you’d be happy for your patients to consult.