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    Taking a different approach with patient handouts


    Gregory A. Hood, MD, FACP
    Apparently, physicians are taking the wrong approach to patient handouts. We've been producing and distributing organized, detailed patient education handouts written at basic reading levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seems to think we're all wet.

    On a CDC blog (who knew those at the CDC were bloggers?) a blogger posted "Preparedness 101: zombie apocalypse" (http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2011/05/preparedness-101-zombie-apocalypse/).

    This entry seeks to educate the American people on how to best prepare for emergencies of all kinds. The message that you can take steps to save your life and your loved ones fails to resonate even in the wake of deadly hurricanes, tornadoes, and other cataclysms.

    But maybe that isn't the point to draw from this entry. Being totally honest, medical handouts are dry. Learning is not the inevitable outcome of teaching. Even with good instruction, many patients, including highly intelligent ones, don't comprehend as much as we would like. Physicians sometimes take patients' use of the right words as evidence of understanding. They then overestimate patients' ability to handle abstractions inherent in a discussion of their medical conditions.

    The CDC points out that in many forms of zombie fiction, becoming a zombie happens by acquisition of a medical condition known as ataxic neurodegenerative satiety deficiency syndrome. Of course, we'll have to keep in mind that writing patient handouts from the standpoint of how to treat a zombie's infection may stigmatize and not come across well. Although patients might appreciate the irony that prion-related illnesses or radiation can change people into zombies, they might not take too well to the association with their own real-life condition. However, the point is that story-telling or entertaining writing may be highly effective in some handouts.

    Many patients don't seem to get much out of handouts, or even one-on-one education. It doesn't always matter that a handout, a certified dietitian, or a physician takes the time to explain in simple terms a condition, its history, treatment options, and prognosis. In this entertainment-mad world we live in, it just isn't enough. Too often, patients who have undergone repeated education by several members of a multidisciplinary team still respond to a simple restatement of facts with a zombie-like look of incomprehension.


    Gregory A. Hood, MD, FACP
    The author, an internist in Lexington, KY, is a member of this magazine's Editorial Board.

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