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2 Types Of Patient Education And When And How To Use Them

Posted by Siobhan Bulfin on May 10, 2019 11:30:00 AM

Patient education, patient engagement, behavior change are all trending topics in the current healthcare climate. The importance of these topics hinges on two important results integrated delivery networks invest themselves in - improved patient outcomes and lower medical costs.


Especially when it comes to long-term illness, patient education is vital for improving chronic disease outcomes. There are two common educational frameworks to help facilitate patient change: structured and unstructured education (sometimes referred to as informal education).

What do the two different approaches mean?

Structured education follows a specific timeline and curriculum. It’s focused on giving patients the basic knowledge and tools to self-manage their chronic conditions.

Unstructured patient education enables patients to find answers to questions they may face on their healthcare journey. It often involves access to resources, community support, and interactive answers to questions.

Why use structured education?

The learning curve for self-management of a long term condition is often steep, especially when patients are newly diagnosed with a chronic disease. Structured education can be effective during these ‘teachable moments’ of diagnoses, at breaking down what can seem overwhelming information into disseminated information over a duration of weeks via a self-management program.

Almost all patients who are at risk for diabetes or newly diagnosed need education in order to understand how to slow their disease progression. Structured education takes them through a specific process to manage their disease and make necessary lifestyle changes.  

Why use unstructured education?

Unstructured education, on the other hand, fills a different void. As patients deal with ongoing health conditions, they’ll face new (and not always typical) difficulties in dealing with disease. This is why providing access to patient education materials is so important. In addition, they need a place to ask personal health questions and receive prompt answers.

As patients grow in self-managing their conditions, their knowledge needs to morph and change, as well. A structured setting might not continue to meet the ever-changing needs of patients with chronic illness. Unstructured education provides an active learning environment to support ongoing change.

When to use structured and unstructured education

There are many scenarios where these two approaches to education are helpful. Structured education is helpful when patients are new to self-managing chronic disease. Pre- or newly diagnosed chronic disease patients, need basic information to understand (for example) how to regulate blood sugar levels and make small but significant behavior changes.

Unstructured education is often helpful for ongoing conditions where patients are dealing with treatment complications and unpredictable symptoms.

Cancer patients often need this type of education. They benefit from accessible resources and interactive peer support to answer their changing and unique questions and concerns.

How to use patient education to its full advantage

In implementing patient education strategies, patients can often benefit from both structured and unstructured approaches. Timing and tools are two of the most important aspects that health training can provide.

One practical way to implement structured education is to involve health coaches and peer communities. Health coaches can help guide patients in self-directed learning and set patients up with self-management plans that include goals and accountability. Peer support can also help patients apply the knowledge they learn in very practical ways.

To apply unstructured training, patients need online materials and health advice to advise their ongoing decisions. Accessible peer groups and community managers provide a solid basis for patients to get support.

What are the benefits

Patients and clinicians benefit from both models of education. Engagement strategies, both structured and unstructured, enable those with chronic disease to improve their quality of life. By improving patient knowledge, those with chronic illness are better equipped to manage symptoms and prevent conditions from worsening.

Patient benefits

Structured education sets patients up to knowledgeably manage their health problems, which can help lower ER utilization and reduce the total cost of care. This type of education also enables patients to know when they need to seek more medical help to prevent further complications.

Ongoing support from unstructured education gives patients the means to keep growing their knowledge and management of chronic illness. Rather than disregard symptoms, they have the tools they need to adjust their management strategies and continue behavior change. Patients are enabled to improve their quality of life in the long run.

Clinician benefits

Clinicians benefit from these two types of patient education in several ways as well. For starters, their patients are better equipped to ask knowledgeable questions and also know when to seek further medical help. This helps clinicians provide better comprehensive care.

Because health coaches and peer groups provide vast educational resources, clinicians have extra support to help improve patient conditions. And although clinicians still provide education in the clinic, they can better hone information for specialized patient needs.

In short, with this extra support system, clinicians can delve into patient concerns more efficiently and effectively.

What are the outcomes

By integrating structured and unstructured education with one another, patients have a multi-pronged approach to receive sound medical advice and timely support. With improved access to resources, patients can improve their adherence to patient management plans. This follow-through alleviates strain on clinicians and allows them to focus their efforts on conditions that need the most attention.

The cumulative result is that patients can experience better quality of life and improved health conditions. By proxy, this can result in fewer medical bills, lower health costs, and fewer complications requiring hospitalization.

Both patients and medical professionals can potentially experience better outcomes in the long run as a result of structured and unstructured education.

What is your patient education strategy? Do you use one or both of these forms?

Topics: patient engagement, patient community, whole person care, population health

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