Career advice

Why nurses must facilitate patient education

Making time to inform patients about their health is essential to improving long-term outcomes

Making time to inform patients about their health is essential to improving long-term outcomes

Picture: Charles Milligan

I am a big fan of medical dramas on TV, but one thing I cannot stand is when nursing or medical staff give the wrong information, use overly technical words or speak condescendingly to their patients.

There is just no excuse for this. Nurses have such a vital role to play in informing and educating patients and it infuriates me when programme makers get this so wrong - I have even been known to email them a strong complaint or two.

We all know that real life in the NHS is markedly different from how it is portrayed on TV, so let's stick with reality and look at how and when you can educate your patients and how you can facilitate their learning.

Finding the time

When you are rushed off your feet, putting time aside for patient education may not be your top priority. Patient safety must always come first. However, as a professional group, nurses have a responsibility to empower patients to look after their long-term health. Not only will this benefit the individual, it can also help take some of the strain off the system.

As nurse and patient-education expert Fran London says: "Without patient education, there's little effective healthcare with improved long-term outcomes." 

So, how can you make the time for this level of interaction?

  • Time management: We can all be creatures of habit but it can be useful to reflect on how you are using your time. If you break down a recent shift into half hour chunks, you may find some of the barriers to you having more time with your patients. Were there things that you could have safely delegated, for example?
  • Start at the beginning: As with revalidation, patient education doesn't need to be a formal activity. From admission onwards, every time you engage with your patients is an opportunity to educate and inform.
  • Avoid repetition: Find out what your patient already knows and use this as a baseline.

Teaching skills

As well as stressing the importance of patient education, Ms London talks about how nurses become effective educators. 

'Teaching patients isn't rocket science, but it is a sophisticated skill that takes practice and commitment,' she says.

So start by being patient with yourself and use the following tips to help improve your practice: 

  • Know your facts: Patients rely on you for correct information, so do your research and make sure your knowledge is up-to-date. You cannot know everything, so pass on any relevant questions to a senior colleague. Being honest helps build and maintain trust.
  • Be inquisitive: The same approach won't suit everyone, so you will need to assess and adapt. Don't assume that you know best - patients all have different levels of health literacy and learning styles.
  • Be mindful of the environment: A hectic ward or unit is not conducive to learning, so do what you can to create some quiet space where you will not be interrupted. If this is not possible, keep any interactions short and be prepared to go over information several times.
  • Watch your language: You may be familiar with medical terminology, but it is likely your patients are not. Try to avoid unnecessary jargon or overly long sentences, and steer clear of closed questions such as, 'Do you understand?'. Use open questions instead to promote further discussion.
  • Address any fears: Patients will not be able to take in anything you are saying if they are anxious or have preconceived ideas about what is happening to them. Take the time to listen and try to alleviate anxieties and misconceptions.
  • Make it a two-way process: As the writer and philosopher Benjamin Franklin famously said,'Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.' The teach-back technique - where you ask the patient to repeat information or demonstrate techniques is an effective way of promoting learning. 
  • Involve colleagues: If you feel that your approach is not working, take some time out and ask one of your colleagues to assist.

Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach and former nurse

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