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More is not necessarily better when it comes to patient education materials

The effort by so many physician practices to gather, sort, index, computerize, and expand their patient education materials may not be worth the time and money. That's because physicians who personally select a small collection of handouts are by far the most likely to use them, concludes a study supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS08776). The study showed that patients don't usually help themselves to educational pamphlets but prefer to receive them directly from the doctor. The physician still plays a key role in patient education, emphasize the University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers who conducted the study.

The researchers observed 18 family medicine practices for 4 to 12 weeks each. A research nurse shadowed 57 doctors during 1,600 patient encounters. In all of these practices, the doctors distributed most educational handouts. Clinics' use of patient education materials followed two distinct patterns. Some doctors were "stockpilers," who relied on the clinic staff to develop and organize a common library of patient education handouts. Other doctors personally selected and maintained a small "personal stash" of handouts that addressed topics most relevant to their practice. This latter group used their limited selection of educational materials more often than providers with access to a greater variety and number of handouts (25 vs. 5 percent of observed visits in worst and best case scenarios).

Having too many handouts may have made it difficult for doctors to familiarize themselves with the materials or to locate the ones they wanted to use. Some doctors had more than 150 handouts available—which were pooled contributions of doctors, nurses, office staff, and pharmaceutical representatives—and were intended for communal use by all providers in the clinic. The collections were usually maintained by a staff member, and most physicians were unfamiliar with the handouts. The authors suggest that the most practical way to disseminate patient education materials is for the doctors in each practice to choose and maintain a small number of patient educational materials particularly suited to their educational style, practice profile, and the perceived informational needs of their patients.

See "The organization and distribution of patient education materials in family medicine practices," by Kristine L. McVea, M.D., M.P.H., Meena Venugopal, M.D., Benjamin F. Crabtree, Ph.D., and Virginia Aita, Ph.D., in the April 2000 Journal of Family Practice 49(4), pp. 319-326.

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