I made a poll asking persons if they knew that cervical cancer was preventable and someone asked me what I meant by preventable.
This was someone I knew personally and responded to them in a way that I thought was clear and understandable. I screenshot the conversation and sent it to one of my doctor friends, with way more experience than I have, and asked him “How did I do?”
Now, I thought I did a great job of explaining…
He responded “Not so well. Too medical… too much jargon.”
And he was right.
When you have studied a field you inevitably learn the jargon and the language. I remember being in clinic where a report was being read out loud and all of us were nodding understandingly while the patient looked completely lost.
In medicine, doctors and other health professionals sometimes have to act as translators, I don’t think we always remember how it was when we just started… all the new words and terms we’re using now weren’t so easy to catch on to then.
So when it comes to passing on information to our patients it is paramount that we, not only simplify the language but also, check for understanding as well.
Here’s a non medical example.
Say you go to a financial advisor and you ask where should you invest some extra cash lying around. He simply says,
“let’s build you a portfolio with several assets. We’ll have mutual funds, bonds and stocks. To maximise your returns let’s get income producing assets so you can benefit from both your capital gains and dividends.”
Now all of this sounds great, but if you have no idea what any of those finance related words mean, the statement means nothing to you. And sometimes we are too afraid to ask someone to explain- trust me I’ve been there.
So how can we communicate to persons outside our field better?
Let’s use an example:
A 45 year old male has just been recently diagnosed with diabetes. You are asked to speak to him about this diagnosis.
Always ensure confidentiality.
Let the patient know right away that anything said in this consultation is confidential and will only be shared with persons relevant to the case, those who they have given you explicit permission to do so with or if you’re mandated by law to do so.
Ask what they expect from the consultation.
This really can help you to guide the conversation, and helps you to know what exactly the patient is looking to achieve.
Ask what they already know.
This way you can see what understanding they already have about the topic you’re discussing.
“What do you know about diabetes?”
Fill in the blanks.
Once you get their level of understanding you can fill in any gaps that might be there with information. You can also clarify any misunderstandings they have.
Ask what are their concerns.
When you do this, you can further address any problems they have and it is another chance to clear up misunderstandings.
In diabetes, many persons are afraid of losing a leg or going blind… this is a perfect opportunity to emphasise the importance of good glycemic (sugar) control.
Ask “What have you understood?” instead of “Do you understand?”
This way you allow the patient to tell you back what they have heard and understood. This is yet another opportunity to clear up misunderstanding and fill in gaps in information.
Showing empathy is an important part of communicating. Try using statements where you acknowledge their feelings “I can understand…” versus saying “I’m sorry”.
Avoid using jargon, or if you must- explain it.
Remember, this is your field. Words that are simple to you can be hard to understand for others who have never heard them.
Ask open ended questions.
This allows you to get a wider scope of the issues, misunderstandings or concerns the patient may have.
Each consultation is a conversation, commanding patients what to do will not empower the patient and most likely won’t help the situation. The patient must feel as though he/she was apart of the decision on treatment. This way you improve compliance when the patient feels that it was their choice and decision and not because “Doctor tell mi fi dweet”.
We have to move medicine from being paternalistic.
And if you’re on the other side of the consultation, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification and explanation.
Effective communication with our patients is of utmost importance. When they are able to understand what is happening to them and their health well they become empowered. Health literacy is a necessary tool for patient empowerment.
While the example above was medical, I think that all professionals can use the tips above to improve communication between them and their clients.
What are some of your tips for better communication?
Samantha C. Johnson