Common Errors in Patient Education


Posted to Nursing, Uncategorized

Common Errors in Patient Education

One of the most important aspects of the nurse’s role is to educate patients. To do that effectively, there are a couple of points that nurses (as well as other health care professionals) should be aware of.

One is that health care illiteracy affects over one half of all Americans. Regardless of their ability to read and write, or their level of education, Americans don’t understand the health care system and how it works. They don’t even understand enough most of the time to know that they don’t understand.

The other point is that as a result of this problem, the Institute for Health Care Advancement (IHA)points out that costs are continuing to rise to the point of, “as much as $236 billion in unnecessary health care expenses annually due to the inability of patients to understand what medical providers are communicating to them.”

The IHA has complied a guide for health care professionals and consumers to help eliminate some of these problems. This list is composed of the 10 Most Common Errors Medical Professionals Make When Communicating with Their Patients.

Some of the points in this document include:

  • Prescription drug instructions are often written at a 10th or 11th grade reading level. Most of the population reads at a 5th grade level.
  • Communicating with patients using medical or other technical jargon such as “otitis media” or “myocardial infarction” instead of using laypersons’ terms such as “ear ache” or heart attack.”
  • Telling patients to go read about their condition, treatments or medications on the Internet when this information might be too complex, might disagree with the physician’s course of treatment, or the patient may not have access or know how to search the Internet.
  • Handing out reading material which is printed in too small a font to be easily read, especially by seniors who represent the largest portion of the population.
  • Not using simple graphics or other visual aids to enhance the patient’s understanding.
  • Not recognizing that the patient is nodding or saying “yes” as more of a means to be polite and not necessarily because s/he understands what is being said.

Providers should always ask patients to repeat back to them in their own words what they interpret to be the information or instructions given to them. Tis is the best way for the provider to be sure the patient understands correctly and then to make clarifications as needed.

Not demonstrating cultural awareness and how cultural differences may affect the patient’s ability to comply and to succeed with a treatment or other regimen.

  • Speaking too quickly and not allowing the patient time to formulate or ask questions.
  • Not providing the information and instructions in the patient’s first language.
  • Not taking time to adequately explain the meaning of terms on prescription drug labels. For example, “Take With Food,” is written at a 1st or 2nd grade level, but what does it really mean? Studies have shown that some patients have interpreted this as meaning stuffing the pill into a piece of solid food and swallowing it without taking any liquid. This could have varying degrees of problems depending upon the drug and even the size of the pill.

Other problems patients typically have difficulty with include how and when to make follow up appointments, where to go for tests, and even which medications should be refilled and continued versus a course of antibiotics.

Even the most highly educated patients may not understand medical information. Nurses, as the primary health educators, need to understand how to educate patients as well as how to evaluate the patient’s understanding before they leave.

Helen Osborne M.Ed.,OTR/L, Health Literacy Consulting (
By Kathy Quan RN BSN. Kathy is the author of The Everything New Nurse Book and the author/owner of

©2008 by All Rights Reserved