The Purpose of Chiropractic Patient Education
Many chiropractors subscribe to the incorrect belief that “if patients knew what you knew, they would do what you do.”
The operative hallucination is that, if patients knew the devastating effects of vertebral subluxation, they would comply with every lifestyle suggestion you make and elect to continue with some type of ongoing nonsymptomatic wellness care.
But it’s not true.
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever “educate” patients into valuing their health and doing what you and I do.
Of course you can shame them, guilt them or even manipulate them, and, for a short time, they will half-heartedly conform. But traditional patient education lacks the power to cause patients to reprioritize their underlying values and invest in their health.
While this assertion may do little to stop you from trying to convince patients to embrace wellness care, remember that there’s a huge gap between knowing and doing.
Most of us know we should floss our teeth, but only about 60% of us do so regularly.
Most of us know we should have a will, but only about 40% of us do.
Most of us know we should rotate our tires, but only a fraction of us do.
Does that mean you should dispense with your patient education overtures? After all, few patients expect or even want to hear your impassioned speech about continued care once they feel better. For many, such a speech would merely reaffirm the commonly-held belief that “once you go to a chiropractor, you have to go for the rest of your life.”
So no. You must educate patients.
You have a moral obligation to explain a common-sense alternative to the drugging, the addiction, the lies and profit motives of Big Pharma and the predominately cultural notion that health is about how you feel.
The purpose of effective patient education is not to manifest cash-paying wellness practice members who stabilize your practice. That may be a happy result from time to time, but the more practical and achievable goals follow.
1. To supply a new meaning for their symptoms.
Patients weaned on the medical model of health think that their ache, pain or named symptom is their problem. In fact, they’re sure of it. “If these headaches would disappear, everything would be fine,” they reason.
Effective patient education can help a patient decode this crude language that their body uses to get its owner’s attention and make a change.
“Any one of a number of drugs can make your headaches disappear,” you observe as you play along. “Have you considered a drug solution?” you ask at the consultation.
If that seems risky, even foolish, you’re overlooking the fact that most patients have already tried this more convenient and accepted resolution to their problem before consulting you. They’ve found it wanting. So find out why.
And while you’re uncovering their disappointment with their drugging solution, find out what they think is causing their symptoms. Besides being amusing, incorrect or clueless, their response is the doorway to true patient education.
2. To provide the context for your intervention.
Most patients will use adjustments the way they use drugs: to treat their symptoms. This is the practice of medicine. Letting such a belief stand interferes with their use of chiropractic as a long-term lifestyle adjunct after their symptoms subside.
Patients think your cervical adjustments are treating their headaches and your lumbar adjustments are treating their low back pain.
Sadly, some chiropractors think the same!
There is an opportunity here to coax patients into an understanding that, while you are in contact with bones, your real interest lies in the integrity and functioning of their nervous system. The opportunity to move patients away from thinking of you as a back doctor and toward viewing you as a nerve doctor is largely overlooked. Yet creating such a shift would change everything.
Effective communication about what an adjustment does and what it doesn’t do is key. Otherwise, patients will find such a relatively subtle, low-tech approach to health restoration far too feeble to address organic or visceral health issues. This relegates you to a practice limited to adults with neck and back pain.
3. To set appropriate expectations.
Because of their firsthand exposure to medical doctors before consulting your practice, most patients begin chiropractic care with a set of expectations you can’t possibly compete with.
They expect almost instant results.
They expect you do to do most of the work.
They expect you and your “dosage” of three visits a week to control the speed of their recovery.
If not addressed and neutralized, these and other expectations will conspire against you. They will place a huge burden on your shoulders. Will the symptoms resolve quickly enough to please the patient? Is the patient still onboard? Do they trust their own body enough to persevere? Will they do the other things you advise them to do between visits to enhance their recovery?
Effective patient education alerts each patient that they’re the doctor, not you.
4. To build trust and create ease.
It comes down to this: effective patient education is an investment in building trust and creating a deep connection with each patient.
However, if you’re just thankful that someone warmer than room temperature is in front of you or fearful that telling patients the truth will invite a flight risk, you have been deceived.
Ultimately this is about setting and respecting clear boundaries—which is every leader’s obligation. That’s you. You need to know where your responsibility begins and ends. Each patient needs to know his or her obligations as well. Communicating this at the beginning of each new relationship is essential. It establishes an environment of mutual respect but only if you trust patients to make the correct decisions based on the other demands on their time and money. If, instead, you resent how they take care of themselves or how little they value their health, your relationships will suffer and you will be tempted to become the doting parent, helicoptering over each patient to “manage” them.
This is a luxury that you can only afford if you keep your practice small.
5. To remind yourself of your mission.
Be mindful that most of what you tell patients is actually meant for you. Granted, it feels like you’re providing them with guidance and insights. But what you’re actually doing is reminding yourself of what is true and what you should be doing.
Chiropractors who give regular patient lectures know this. Many often remark that they will willingly give their talk even if only one patient shows up because they benefit so greatly from hearing their own story.
This is the basis of the old adage, “If you really want to know something, teach it.”
Speaking almost always benefits the speaker more than the recipient. Similarly, due to the energy required to organize my thoughts and write this blog post, I will likely benefit from it more than you will. This is why writers write and speakers speak.
If you’ve neglected or even abandoned your responsibility for educating patients, I hope you’ll return to it, especially now that you know that getting patients to abandon their medical orientation, flush all their medications down the toilet and become a chiropractor like you isn’t the objective.
Educate patients because it’s actually for you, not them. If they end up benefiting, great. If not, you will at least become more certain and confident about what you’re doing. Even without having to speak a word, you’ll send a powerful message that inspires hope, builds trust and reassures even the wariest of patients. It’s how large practices get that way.