Advancing Health Literacy

Helping Patients Feel Knowledgeable

In an earlier post, we discussed how patients might feel stupid when faced with a medical crisis. Medical professionals can help patients feel knowledgeable and reverse that feeling, which will increase patient satisfaction and improve the organization’s bottom line.

Today, patients are smarter and better informed than ever before. Access to information—reliable or not—is as close as a smart phone. And the more patients know, the less likely they are to take anyone’s word at face value, even if that “anyone” has an M.D. at the end of his or her name. Higher deductibles and relentless news coverage about healthcare safety empowers them to ask questions. They are showing their teeth, and they are not necessarily smiling. Are practice administrators preparing doctors and hospitals to work with activated patients who want to feel knowledgeable?

Patients associate feeling knowledgeable with feeling informed, understood and educated.

Three Dimensions of Knowledge

Our company, Help Me Health, conducted a survey of patients and their loved ones around this concept of “feeling knowledgeable” and learned that when patients feel “stupid,” they also feel “ill-advised”; they also feel they have made rash or unwise decisions about their treatment. Whew! That’s a ton of regret to live with, especially if they’re making decisions for a loved one who will have to live with the consequences. One survey respondent told us about persuading her teenage son to take Accutane, a medication for acne, during a 15-minute doctor’s appointment. Years later, her son told her he deeply regrets having put this powerful drug in his body over a concern for pimples and that he worries about what might happen to him later in life as a result of using it.

The survey deepened our understanding of what patients mean when they say, “I want to feel knowledgeable.” Feeling knowledgeable has three dimensions.

First, feeling knowledgeable is feeling fully informed. Patients told us they want healthcare professionals to tell them all that is relevant to their situation in a way they can understand. They also want healthcare professionals to provide trusted sources of information they can review and research on their own at a later time, when they are ready emotionally to explore the diagnosis.

Second, feeling knowledgeable is feeling understood.

Patients want healthcare professionals to respect them and their loved ones for having done their own research, even if the information is inaccurate or incomplete. Patients want healthcare providers to listen to the information they think is relevant to their situation—even if they’re wrong. Yes, patients also want to be corrected, but not in a way that makes them feel stupid. They want to be acknowledged for taking control of their health.

Third, feeling knowledgeable means feeling educated. Mark, one of our survey respondents, put this well:

I want time to process the information the doctor gives me. Even after 15 minutes with the doctor, I want to step away, think about it, absorb it, do more research if I have to and discuss it with my wife. Then and only then do I feel prepared to make decisions. That’s how I make important decisions at work. Why would this be any different?

These three dimensions of “feeling knowledgeable” encompass a range of other feelings, including respect and professionalism. For example, patients want to be able to say, “I feel that you respect the information I gained from my independent research on the medications you have prescribed,” or at least, “I feel that you respect me for doing research on the medication, even if you distrust the source.“

Helping Doctors to Help Patients Feel Knowledgeable

First, clinicians and administrators should identify the personas of patients in their populations. Personas are fictional characters represented by detailed definitions and illustrations of typical patients and their loved ones. The best personas define patient wants, needs, fears, aspirations, and decision-making styles. While personas can be created by interviewing doctors, nurses, receptionists and nursing assistants, another way to get accurate information is by speaking directly with patients and their loved ones. For example, a mother and son may need different information and guidance. Handing teenagers cartoon brochures about their illness is not age appropriate, neither is handing the mother a photocopied handout from a medical textbook. Use your patient personas to guide your decisions about what will help doctors communicate with patients and help them feel knowledgeable.

A client of ours produced life-size posters of their personas and posted them in meeting rooms as reminders to all who worked, discussed and made decisions in those rooms, to view everything they did through the lens of their customers.

Once a healthcare organization understands its patient personas, it should consider the following techniques to improve its patient education tools:

  • Provide decision-making tools. Like Kathleen’s geneticist’s three-ring binder described in our earlier post, design collateral materials that reveal information in layers.
  • Offer timesaving tools, such as checklists. Help doctors and patients make the most of their time.
  • Translate and define medical terms.
  • Conduct patient focus groups to ask, “What information do you want?” Engage focus group participants by asking them to rewrite, edit or reorganize information.
  • Co-create; tap into the creativity and needs of patients to develop informational handouts, videos and apps. In your co-creation sessions, make sure all personas are represented.
  • Whenever possible, customize warnings.
  • Organize information into digestible chunks. Have you bought an appliance or a tech product in the last 10 years? Quick-start guides are standard now. What do you need to know right now to get the product working?
  • List trusted websites/links or patient support groups.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from this list, it’s to resist the temptation to be content-centric. Instead, evaluate the needs of the patient and loved ones personas and build out from the patient-centric perspective. Feeling knowledgeable is based on a person’s perception. It is a customized step that leads to a positive patient experience and improved satisfaction scores.


Randi Oster and Kathleen Cattrall RANDI REDMOND OSTER is founder and president of Help Me HealthTM, whose mission is to transform how healthcare thinks about the patient experience to improve outcomes and the bottom line. She is also the author of Questioning Protocol, which helps patients navigate the healthcare system and medical professionals understand the patient perspective. Randi spent the first 18 years of her career at GE working on complex aerospace systems and building profitable financial services businesses. Skills she gained at GE empowered her to effectively navigate the healthcare system for her son, find opportunities for process improvements for hospitals and launch Help Me Health. KATHLEEN CATTRALL is chief experience officer of Help Me Health. She is a customer experience trailblazer credited with establishing new standards and methods for companies dogged by customer challenges. She believes that the experiences customers have with companies have economic value in the same way that a company’s products have value. Her reputation as a subject matter expert in the customer experience space makes her a sought-after contributor to Forrester Research white papers, for blogs and as a speaker.

Randi Oster and Kathleen Cattrall has 1 post(s) at

1 Trackback

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *