Is Knowledge Enough To Inspire Action?

In my last newsletter, I discussed “plain language”– clear, simple writing that people can actually understand and use. I closed with the following statement:

“Plain language alone is not enough to get people to use the information you present to make a change (hey, I’ve read a ton of exercise and diet books, but still prefer the couch to the treadmill!). Stay tuned for communication techniques that can spark change.”

In our initial efforts to communicate information to the public, we may believe that if we simply provide enough data and information, people will become better healthcare consumers. They will seek out providers with proven ability to provide high quality, cost-effective care: a hospital with lower re-admission rates and higher patient satisfaction, for example, or a physician with lower complication rates. We think that doctors and nurses will communicate better if we simply show them a patient satisfaction score and the improvement required to reach a goal.

Unfortunately, the belief that “knowledge leads to action” is not always justified. As promised, I’ve presented here a few ideas and techniques to enhance communication of health information, especially to patients and their families, in a way that will inspire and enable them to be more involved in the healthcare decisions they make.

1. Involve viewers with your content.

This idea gets tossed around the net and social media quite a lot. But what exactly does it mean to involve others, and how might you do it? We all have specific interests and goals, and bring our unique interests and problems to each interaction with information. Truly, in this case, “it’s personal.” Therefore, when you are developing reports, dashboards or any other communication pieces, especially on the web, consider the following:

  • Develop content with your target audience. Never design tables, graphs, dashboards, and|or text without engaging the people who are going to use that material — never.
  • Allow content customization. Whenever possible, include filters and selection criteria that let people see what is most relevant and important to them. These refining elements might include zip codes, states, patient ages, gender, hospital type, similar conditions, ethnicity. Find out what is of interest and help to your audience, then try and find a way to include it.
  • Make it easy for people to share content (“Hey, I thought you would find this interesting,” and an e-mailed quick link to online reports and documents, will get attention paid — but only if you make it easy to share.”) or print information. If I want to discuss where my elderly relative should receive care, it is much easier to create a well-designed document to be printed at different venues than it is to huddle around the glowing blue screen.
  • Let people rate or comment on the information and displays of data on your site (works for Amazon!). If you aren’t ready to make it public, consider starting with a simple survey that includes a comment section. Perhaps a group or community in which your audience could participate would make them better informed and engaged with the information you present. A very successful and effective such website is Patients Like Me.

2. Remind people why the effort is worthwhile.

Let’s step back and think about why we make this data available: we want people to make informed decisions, then act effectively on them. We most often change our behavior when the perceived benefits outweigh the known obstacles. We report data about the percentage of patients who receive discharge instructions, and we report re-admission rates; but do we link them so as to show patients and their families that following the instructions will reduce the likelihood of being re-hospitalized?

If we wish to ensure high-quality, cost-effective care by steering people to institutions with good performance metrics, we must help them understand why choosing a hospital with which they are not familiar can enhance their patient experience and save them money. And aside from financial penalties, if we don’t get patients to put this information to use enhancing their healthcare decisions, what would motivate any provider to improve?

We need our full panoply of techniques to communicate data and information clearly if we hope to inspire informed decision-making and change behavior. Using the best practices of data visualization and plain language is crucial, but not enough. We also have to use techniques that will engage people with our content so that they will care about and build on it to get others off their seats and the work done.

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