We’re designing a patient education program as part of a research project. We’ve heard this is something of a specialty of yours. Your thoughts?”

Sure. My experience is that most of what passes for patient education in addiction programs is pretty flawed. That’s too bad because there’s so much misinformation about addiction out there, floating around, polluting the discussion. Patient education is a prime opportunity to replace it with the good stuff.

One observation: patient education programs aren’t just informational – they’re supposed to help motivate. When you educate people about what’s wrong with them, you’re providing them with reasons to treat it. Or if you prefer, the rationale for recovery.

When I sit down to design a patient education component, I ask myself two questions.

First: What do I want the client to learn from this particular presentation?

Second: Why is it important that he or she learn it, at this point in treatment?

If I’m not able to come up with clear answers, I question whether I really need to include the information at all. And I’m likely to leave it out.

Another point: it isn’t the details that the patient will need to recall later. In fact, most won’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve been approached by folks who want to know why we’re giving them such and such information now, instead of earlier in treatment. But in fact, we did give them the information earlier. They just forgot.

That’s characteristic of people in the first months of sobriety. They’ve got CRS syndrome. As in “Can’t Remember S___.”

But even if they can’t recall the info itself, you made an impression on them. That’s motivational.

It’s also important to include both positive and negative reinforcers. In other words, the reasons why recovery is good, and also the reasons why continuing to drink and use drugs would be bad. The clearer, the better. Use examples. It’s hard for someone with alcoholism to grasp the idea that he or she can’t go back to drinking at some future point – after a year of abstinence, for instance. But the old saw that a pickle can’t go back to being a cucumber – that people seem to understand.

Don’t ask me why. And some simple advice about how people learn:

  • Put the important points at the beginning and again at the end of presentation
  • Use learning tricks (mnemonics) for the really important stuff. Acronyms like KISS, for instance. Or SLIP – Sobriety Loses Its Priority. Makes it easier to recall.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself on the important stuff.
    • Repeat yourself.