Communication is critical for success in every industry, but in healthcare, effective communication can mean the difference between life and death. Healthcare providers need to be certain that their patients understand information about health conditions and treatment options, so they can make the best possible decisions for their personal health. Failure of communication is often a contributing issue of medical error; one study found that over 70 percent of errors resulting in patient death or severe harm had communication errors as their root cause.
Healthcare providers need to consistently look for ways to improve how they communicate with patients. In addition to employing health communication strategies learned through formal training, here are a few simple strategies for helping patients understand important information about their health:
No two patients have the same background, and providers need to be careful to show respect for individual patients’ cultural backgrounds while communicating clearly about health. Cultural and linguistic differences between patients and providers can create disparities in how patients receive medical treatment, putting some cultural groups at risk of more serious disease. Providers who don’t often encounter patients with differing cultural backgrounds should practice their cultural sensitivity and awareness, perhaps with tools like the CLAS Standards from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Patients should be in control of their medical treatment, but if providers don’t give patients the opportunity to ask questions, it is much more difficult for patients to understand their circumstances and make meaningful decisions about their health. A simple way to encourage patients to ask questions is to speak slowly and pause frequently. This tactic allows patients more time to process information and develop concerns, which they can voice in the form of questions. At the very least, providers should prompt patients with, “Do you have any questions?” at the end of every visit.
There is a good reason for jargon: It speeds communication between members of the healthcare community by providing fast, clear language for complex topics. Yet, for those outside the healthcare community — e.g. patients — jargon is confusing and alienating. Thus, providers need to learn to develop a communication style free from jargon to use with patients.
Many patients have only a rudimentary understanding of human anatomy, and few are capable of visualizing complex medical concepts, like diseases, treatment plans and more. Thus, to aid in their explanations, providers should have visuals available for medical instruction. These visuals should never be ornamental or abstract, but neither should they be gruesome or grotesque.
Because healthcare can be inconvenient and costly, patients in the Digital Age tend to search their symptoms online and attempt to diagnose themselves before seeking professional help. Unfortunately, this can lead to worse outcomes for patients. Patients can easily overlook or ignore symptoms that affect diagnoses, leading them to become mistaken about their health conditions. Providers should do what they can to reduce patient reliance on “Dr. Google,” perhaps by offering telemedicine appointments that are more convenient for patients.
On a related note, providers should be careful not to leave patients no choice but to head online for more information about their diagnoses or treatments. The internet is full of conflicting information, and patients could easily become confused and misled by incorrect or inapplicable information online. Providers need to be confident that their patients feel fully informed about their health and have the best resources to find accurate information should they need more clarification.
According to the Literacy Project, the average American adult reads at a 7th- or 8th-grade level. In contrast, the typical prescription drug instructions are written to an 11th grade reading level or higher. Providers should strive to explain all health-related instructions to an individual patient’s level of understanding and capability. This might involve printing out steps and visuals to help patients complete their treatment properly — and it might require increasing the font size to allow patients to read instructions clearly. Even instructions that might seem simple, like “take with food,” should be explained, so patients don’t have to guess or search the web to achieve wellness.
Many providers fall into the trap of asking their patients “Do you understand?” Patients might automatically respond “Yes” or nod their heads as a means of being polite or avoiding fuss when in truth they do not fully grasp the concepts at hand. Providers should instead request patients to summarize what they have been told, which will give providers more insight into what patients have absorbed about their health and treatment.
In healthcare, a breakdown of communication is a critical issue. Providers and patients need to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively — and it is largely the provider’s responsibility to ensure this occurs.