Healthcare professional giving nutrition consultation to patient with healthy fruit and vegetable

Patient Education in Nursing: Creating Teaching Moments in Practice

When it comes to patient education, nurses hold a unique position. As they care for patients, nurses provide the main point of contact between medical and non-medical personnel. Often, this allows them to relate complex medical concepts to patients, family members, and caregivers in ways that inform, educate, and empower. Engaging in patient education in nursing is essential to promote long-term patient wellness. 

Recommended course: Educating Patients: Creating Teaching Moments in Practice 

Why is patient education important in nursing? 

The goal of patient education in nursing is to help patients and their families gain, retain, and apply knowledge. With effective education, patients should be able to manage their health, actively participate in decision-making, and improve compliance with their plan of care. Creating teaching moments empowers patients with knowledge, enhances their engagement in their own care, and improves their adherence to treatment plans. 

Ineffective teaching, however, does not help the patient or family. Focus on what the patient needs to learn, not what the healthcare professional thinks they must teach. Education that is ineffectual has shown lower knowledge retention and poor patient outcomes. 

Promoting health literacy among patients 

Health literacy is an important factor to consider when teaching. Personal health literacy is the extent to which individuals can locate, comprehend, and use information and services to make informed decisions and perform actions for their own health or those of others. Lower health literacy levels are associated with poor patient outcomes. Higher health literacy, however, is related to improved patient health outcomes.  

The level of health literacy is particularly noticeable when it comes to written information. Studies have shown that patients with lower health literacy have decreased understanding of written information. This may include reading and comprehending patient instructions and medication labels.  

Lower health literacy is also associated with levels of education and difficulties in school. However, healthcare professionals should not assume that a well-educated person has a high level of health literacy. Knowledge of medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology is specialized, and is rarely understood outside of the healthcare profession.  

Patient health conditions can also impact health literacy. Symptoms like confusion, fear, pain can have an adverse effect on a patient’s comprehension.   

Overcoming barriers to learning 

Nurses and other healthcare professionals should identify potential limitations to learning prior to tackling patient education. Though it’s often not realistic to assume a nurse can overcome all barriers to learning, they should develop strategies to address those that can be addressed.  

One potential barrier to effective patient education in nursing is the patient’s readiness to learn. Learning readiness is the ability to acquire and retain knowledge and apply that knowledge successfully. For patients, their physical, emotional, experiential, and knowledge states can all affect their learning readiness. If the patient is not learning ready, patient education isn’t likely to occur.  

The patient’s environment can also impact the effectiveness of education. Noise, light, distractions, and temperature can negatively impact learning. Differences in primary or native language can create communication barriers in healthcare. Even patients who understand English may learn best in another language. It is important to also ask patients what their preferred language is for learning. 

Cultural fluency is just as important as linguistic fluency. Understanding and respecting a patient’s cultural and ethnic differences are also important, as even subtle differences can affect communication.   

The way the healthcare professional communicates and who the person communicates with are also important cultural considerations. How the person who is teaching communicates can also create communication barriers. The style and speed in which people communicate can vary. Grammar, structure, word meaning, context, and use of jargon can also affect communication. Non-verbal behaviors can also negatively affect communications.   

Recommended podcast: Creating Teaching Moments in Practice 

How to determine educational needs of patients in nursing: Learning styles 

Each person learns differently. The most successful learning occurs when nurses pay attention to the patient’s individual learning style. It is important for the healthcare professional to identify their own learning styles as well, and what they will need to do to adapt to learning styles of others. Learning styles include auditory (through listening), visual (by seeing), and tactile (through touching and doing). People may have one or more primary learning styles. 

Another important consideration is the developmental level of the patient, which experts generally describe in relation to age groups. Some patients may be at a developmental level that is different than their chronological age. Nurses and other healthcare professionals may need to modify their patient education strategies based on those developmental levels. 

Nursing teaching strategies 

Healthcare professionals must develop strategies to address the needs of and effectively educate their patients. They may require individual attention or thrive better in a group setting. Use plain language and make sure the information is timely, correct, complete, and applicable in the current situation. 

Involvement of the patient during the education process is crucial for developing rapport and successful teaching. Ensure the patient is comfortable and can hear, see, and understand what the healthcare professional is saying or showing. Open-ended questions are important at this point. Closed-ended questions require only a “yes” or “no” answer, which doesn’t allow the healthcare professional to gauge the patient’s comprehension. Closed-ended questions can also feel dismissive. Using open-ended questions invites patients to talk more, which provides a clearer picture for healthcare professionals. 

Assessing patient comprehension 

Assessment of the health literacy of a patient is essential. This allows the nursing professional to adjust the level of conversation, reference materials, and resources. Patient understanding, especially those with low health literacy, can be improved by a few key approaches. Focus on “need to know” and “need to do” topics. When healthcare professionals throw a lot of information at patients all at once, it makes it harder for them to pull out the most important items.  

Teaching can be formalized and planned or can be spontaneous and informal to take advantage of a teachable moment. Healthcare professionals should structure their approach to patient teaching so it is performed the same each time, with individualization to the patient.   

Finding teaching moments in nursing practice 

A teaching moment is an unexpected opportunity in which a healthcare professional can offer brief teaching to the patient or family. The teaching moment involves informal education at the time and can evolve into a formalized teaching process.    

Healthcare professionals must identify the teaching moment itself, which can be found in conversation with the patient. During these times, they may find the patient has been operating under misinformation and can take the opportunity to correct it. Patients and families can also voice concerns, ask questions, or indicate they have interest in their health, which provides other teaching moments. Non-verbal cues can additionally indicate if a patient understands information.   

The effectiveness of a teaching moment depends on the receptiveness of the patient, or the readiness to learn. Patients who are ready to learn have a higher likelihood of retaining and applying information. 

After identifying a teaching moment, the healthcare professional must immediately act on it. Timeliness is key during a teaching moment before that time passes through a brief, informal discussion. The goals should be centered on patient needs, with a focus on one or two important takeaways. Following up on a teaching moment is needed to reinforce content.