Field of patient education growing strong

Trends in health care bolster the need for a position

Patient education managers have an important position within health care institutions. Several trends have put this field in the spotlight, according to Kathy Ordelt, RN-CPN, CRRN, patient and family education coordinator at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

National campaigns by such organizations as the Chicago-based American Medical Association with "Ask Me 3" for better health communication have helped bring family- and patient-centered care to the forefront. In addition, organizations such as the Joint Commission in Oakbrook Terrace, IL are pushing patient involvement and clear health communication to the forefront. Achieving national patient safety goals also requires strong educational intervention. All these issues involve the field of patient education, says Ordelt.

As awareness of health literacy issues increases, health care systems are looking to patient education experts to make documents easier for patients and their family members to read and understand, says Diane Moyer, MS, RN, program director for patient education at The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

"Having a person or department responsible for the quality and scope of resources available for patient education within the organization results in a more cost-effective, consistent and easy-to-understand set of resources for clinicians to use in educating patients and families," says Moyer.

Someone in the position of patient education manager or coordinator advocates for the consistency of patient and family education throughout the organization and continuum of care, says Fran London, MS, RN, a health education specialist at The Emily Center at Phoenix (AZ) Children's Hospital.

Patient education managers help develop the infrastructure for programs, says Louise Villejo, MPH, CHES, executive director of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Patient Education Office. They help staff develop programs, creating the educational structure and resources needed to implement them.

Are patient education managers being paid what they are worth? Many in the field believe health care institutions are staying competitive with the local job market. For example, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the human resources department surveys the jobs in the area to make sure its salaries for similar positions are in the same range as those of competing institutions.

However, many other factors could influence the salary a patient education manager or coordinator receives. The title of his or her position is important, whether a person is a coordinator, manager or director, states Ordelt. In addition, organizational structure could play a role, with salary influenced by the position of the person providing oversight. For example, a patient education coordinator could report to a company vice president or a manager.

In our 2008 Patient Education Management Confidential Salary Survey, the annual gross income of readers who participated ranged from about $40,000 to over $100,000.

The extent of responsibility for supervising others is most likely related to this wide range in pay," states London.

Moyer adds, "Salary is largely impacted by whether the position is a salaried position or an hourly rate position, and whether or not the position is able to collect premium, overtime, or certification pay. Some positions also have dual responsibilities in patient and staff education, and that impacts hours and schedules."

The degree required for the role also would impact salary. PEM readers answering the survey ranged from LPNs to PhDs. London states the preparation of the person in the job will determine how the job is implemented, because each degree provides a different skill set.

"I would think organizations determine what role they want the patient education coordinator to have and define the job with the appropriate qualifications to accomplish that. I have an MS in nursing, so I approach the role as a clinical nurse specialist," explains London.

Moyer says that often people with advanced degrees have more project development experience, and they are seen as more valuable contributors to the organization as they apply for grants or do collaborative projects with other organizations.

Another factor affecting salary could be whether or not an RN is preferred, adds Moyer. Salary ranges will improve when organizations need to attract qualified people.

While many readers who answered the survey were RNs, whether this is the best certification for the position of patient education manager is debated by experts in the field.

The fact that many patient education coordinators are RNs shows a poor understanding of the unique skill set of health educators that make them better suited for the role, states Cezanne Garcia, MPH, a senior program and resource specialist at the Institute for Family Centered Care in Bethesda, MD.

Health educators have knowledge of adult learning, as well as knowledge of program development, implementation and evaluation, she says.

Ordelt says an RN is better suited for the position of patient education coordinator than someone with some other clinical background training such as physical therapy. By training, an RN is more holistic and can take care of patient education issues whether clinical nutrition, physical therapy or nursing.

"I think an RN has a much broader overview of the health care system and the whole patient," she adds.

Ordelt sees three key skills required for the job of patient education coordinator. These include the ability to communicate, manage a multitude of projects at one time, and collaborate with others on the importance of patient education.

Whatever the skill set required for the job of patient education manager at a health care institution, it seems hospitals of all different sizes and locations are hiring people for this job position. PEMs answering the survey worked at urban, suburban and rural health care institutions.

"I think most facilities have someone in a role to oversee patient education, since there needs to be consistency within the organization, and there is often a need to have someone coordinating the resources available in the organization," says Moyer.

It is becoming more common to have someone overseeing patient education no matter the size or location of the facility because of accrediting requirements, says Garcia. Such accrediting organizations have a strong expectation that institutions will have in place individuals with knowledge of health literacy, program planning and other skills commonly attributed to patient education managers.

Over the past year several readers reported no change in their salary, while others had a 1% to 3% increase, and other salaries increased by 4% to 6%.

"The economic situation is and has impacted salary increases for a number of years, in some areas more than others. The salary increase for the patient education role is not much different than many roles," says Moyer.

Villejo says at M.D. Anderson, higher salary increases depend on whether the employee receives a merit for doing an outstanding job, such as meeting the institution's financial goals. In tough economic times, these pay raises may not be given, she adds.