7 tips for clear patient communication

March 5, 2021
Lisa Eramo, MA

Lisa Eramo, MA, is a contributing author for Medical Economics.

Medical Economics Journal, Medical Economics March 2021, Volume 98, Issue 3

Follow these guidelines to improve patient understanding and obtain better outcomes.

Use plain language

“Medicine is a really difficult language with a lot of unfamiliar terms,” says Docimo. “It’s important to simplify. For example, instead of saying ‘hypertension,’ use ‘high blood pressure.’ Or instead of ‘hyperglycemia,’ use ‘high blood sugar.’ ”

Physicians can also direct patients to UHG’s free glossary of thousands of health care terms defined in plain, clear language. The glossary is available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Use a team approach to patient education

Train staff to reinforce the care plan and answer patients’ questions, says Docimo. “The whole team needs to help the patient be compliant with what can be a complicated, multistep care plan,” she adds.

Carly Hood-Ronick, M.P.A., M.P.H., an expert on health equity, agrees. “Often a social worker or medical assistant has more time than the physician to sit down with the patient and provide education,” she says.

Use video and other visuals to support patient understanding

“There are simple ways to show the patient and family what’s going on,” says Hydok. For example, physicians can draw a picture, use a model or show an illustration or video online.

Use the teach-back method

For example, Docimo says physicians can say: “I know this is a new diagnosis for you, and I want to make sure you understand all the details. In your own words, can you tell me about your condition and treatment plan?”

Speak slowly

Organize information so the most important details come first and pause to allow patients to digest what you said, says Maureen Hydok, MBA, RN, senior director at Huron, a consulting group.

Provide educational materials

For example, physicians can download and print or provide online links to educational materials from the American Diabetes Association, American Hospital Association, American Cancer Association and other reputable organizations that publish patient-friendly brochures and fact sheets. In addition, many specialty societies publish pamphlets for common conditions, and these materials are available in multiple languages.

Ask patients to read these materials, make a list of questions and schedule a follow-up appointment, says Hydok.

Address language differences

“Assuming that everyone speaks or understands English is not appropriate and not effective,” says Ronick. Instead, ask patients what language they prefer to speak and read, and whether they would like an interpreter. Plan for interpreter services in advance. Consider scheduling appointments on specific days or times when appropriate interpreter services are available — for example, Spanish interpreters available Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m.

Also try to match patients with qualified bilingual clinicians or staff members, if possible. For example, Hydok worked with one clinic that scheduled patients of a particular ethnic background on days when a culturally informed medical assistant was working. “You really need to understand a person’s culture and be able to communicate with them in a way they’ll understand so you can get them to change,” she adds.

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