4 tips to better communicate with patients

I was listening to CBS This Morning recently as they were interviewing Alan Alda. He was discussing his acting career and being the host of Scientific American’s Frontiers (airs on PBS stations). Alan Alda relayed a personal story of his, having an intestinal blockage while he was filming an episode in Chile.

As he relayed this incident, he spoke of the physician who told him that he was going to remove the involved portion of his intestine. He said he didn’t understand why he needed the surgery until the surgeon told him he was “going to cut out the bad part of his intestine and then sew the two ends together.” It was then that he understood, what was going to happen.

Alan Alda proceeded to talk about how people who work in the various fields of science are unable to communicate scientific information in a language the lay person understands. To help address this, he decided to begin teaching at Stony Brook University in New York. His teaches medical students how to communicate with their patients, how to use language the lay person will understand. He is so effective at it, that his classes have a waiting list.

I once worked for a physician/researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center who told me that he wouldn’t be able to see patients without my help. He told me that he looked upon me as his ‘right hand.’ This was due to my being able to explain to his patients, medical knowledge in a form they were able to understand. Whenever he tried to explain it, the patients would just give him a blank look.

And yet, it is so important that we communicate with our patients how to take care of themselves, what the medications are going to do, etc. Instead, too many patients don’t understand what we are saying, because we are using medical jargon instead of plain English.

Over the years, I’ve been told by several physicians that I’m very good at translating medical knowledge into layman’s terms for patients. As I’ve thought back upon this skill, I realized I was using several tools to help patients understand their medical conditions.

So here’s my list:

1. Think about what you want to say, then in your mind translate it into what you believe a sixth grader would understand. Make it as simple as possible. Don’t use anatomical terms, instead use simple English. Examples: swallowing tube (for esophagus), ticker (for heart), etc. I remember when I was working towards my graduate degree, a professor of mine told me that I would have to run it through a software program which would exchange the words I had written, into words a sixth-to-eight grader would understand. My professor told me this was the average comprehension level of the U.S. population.

2. Try to find visual prompts to use with your patients that shows them the anatomy and then explain the anatomy (in very simplified terms,) before you explain to them what is wrong with their own anatomy.

3. If you’re unable to find a diagram, use your hands. I once explained to a patient why her bone density was important in preventing fractures. She understood the concept when I used my closed tightened hand would resist impact much better than my open hand would, which would just give way.

4. Ask your patient to parrot back to you what they do understand. By listening to what they’ve processed, you’re able to see what they didn’t understand and go back over that aspect of it for them.

Communicating medical information to our patients is very important. Patients can then use it to hopefully improve their own health outcomes. And isn’t that what we all want? Better health outcomes for our patients?

Sharon Bahrych is a physician assistant who blogs at A PA View on Medicine.

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