Conveying information to patients: Too much or not enough?

Doctor with patient
Too much information can overwhelm patients, but sometimes it's OK to give them a longer list of instructions.

What’s the best way to give information to patients? Do you dole it out, two or three recommendations at a time? Or lay it all out there, presenting all the information so you don’t leave out something that might be useful?

A new study says it depends on the nature of the recommendations a healthcare provider makes. The best method for conveying information to patients depends on the goal of a specific health objective, the study from the University of Illinois, published in Clinical Psychological Science, finds.

According to the researchers, who studied the behavior of 459 people, doctors can present a large amount of information if their goal is for patients to remember a large number of potentially interchangeable behaviors. However, if the goal is for patients to remember a complete set of important recommendations, than the best strategy is to present relatively few recommendations.

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Too much information and a patient may not remember the points a doctor is trying to convey.

RELATED: 4 strategies to improve doctor-patient communication

"The best number of health behaviors to recommend seems to depend on the goal of an intervention. If the goal is to communicate as many recommendations as possible, then go for a long list of behaviors. But if the goal is to implement behaviors, then the best strategy may be to convey a lower number of recommended behaviors,” Dolores Albarracin, professor of psychology, said in an announcement.

The researchers suggested health professionals might give patients recommendations and use text messaging to help them remember or add new recommendations, while minimizing costs.

A recent study found that one reason patients like having access to the notes doctors and other clinicians write after a visit and include in their electronic health record is to confirm and remember the next steps in their care.