Traditionally, patient education has always meant that the doctor ( or healthcare provider) provides information to the patient in order to educate the patient. Actually, I think this is too limiting a definition. I feel patient education should also include all those times when the patient educates the doctor ! ( In the term "patient education", the patient can be the subject as well as the object !)
All good doctors will agree that their best teachers are their patients - and a well-informed articulate patient can teach a doctor ( who is open-minded) a lot!
Patients have a lot of time to explore the medical literature and their treatment options; and if we give them the tools to do so, they will use them intelligently in order to ensure they get the best medical care possible. ( For example, it's interesting to note that the vast majority of Medline searches done today are done by patients - and not doctors, even though the Medline database is an index of the medical literature, and was originally developed and designed for doctors !)
If you are stumped by a difficult diagnosis, why not offer patients access to a differential diagnosis toolbox ( such as Isabel or Dxplain) so they can explore more diagnostic possibilities ?
After all, patients are the experts on their illness - why not treat them accordingly ?
Communication is a two-way process; and just like doctors can teach their patients, patients too, can teach their doctors. How can we make this easier for patients ?
I think the first thing we need to do is to change our perception of patients - and their own perception of themselves ! Treat tham as experts, and lots of them will behave as experts.
In my own practise, I give my patients a prescription for information. I tell them - fill it up. These are the topics you need to find out more about - and these are the resources you may find helpful. I suggest books, websites and the public library - and encourage them to explore for themselves. I then tell them to come back and share the results of their information search with me, so they can educate me .
This is a win-win process. Patients feel empowered and comfortable, and are happy to be treated as intelligent adults ! While I may not learn much new medical information from them ( I feel I am well-informed and well-read !), every once in a while a patient unearths a priceless nugget which I would have otherwise missed.
It also allows me to establish a more personal relationship with them, as one of equals. It encourages questions; allows me to clear doubts; and enables patients to give a much more "informed consent".
Most importantly, my patients educate me about their own personal feelings; and the techniques they use to cope with their illness. Since I am not infertile myself, this helps me to empathise with my patients. It also helps me to grow as a person, as I learn a lot about life; and about how people cope with stress and distress.
This is one of the best forms of CME ( continuing medical education ) I have ever come across - and I highly recommend it to everyone !