Do your patients understand you?

How do you know?

A recent USA Today article states that miscommunications between patients and health care providers are increasing the chances that people who need medical care will be hurt or killed in the process.

The article sites a report done by the Joint Commission Healthcare Accreditation Group which states that cultural and language barriers pose problems for patient-doctor communications, as well as poor general literacy skills.

The group’s recommendations include specific advice for educating and training healthcare professionals; using well-trained medical interpreters for patients with English comprehension difficulties; and encouraging a culture of easy-to-understand communication in all facets of medical care.

Dennis O’Leary, president of the group, says that when he was in medical school no one even mentioned that someone might not understand what he was saying. “Yet, more serious adverse events are caused by communication problems than any other thing.”

Why am I writing about this??? It’s not because of my passion for communication, and it is not because (as a health care copywriter) ensuring communications are easy to understand and written to the appropriate audience is a core part of what I do.

It’s because ensuring patients understand what their problems are, understanding what treatments you recommend, and understanding what courses of action are available is an important aspect of your job.

And how do you really know if people understand what you are saying to them?

There are a few steps you can take to ensure patients understand what you are telling them.

* Look at the patient when you are talking to them. Look them in the eye. Don’t talk while you are jotting notes in their charts or writing a prescription. Do they have a blank look on their face? Are they nodding their head that they understand you? Are they asking questions?

* Offer written hand-outs that are written in an easy to read format. Copies of articles from your medical journals do not count. Copies of instructions from equipment manufacturers are not enough. (Yes, I have seen docs use both of these to educate patients). Hand-outs need to be written to a fourth or fifth grade reading level whenever possible.

—I suggest making generic hand-outs for some of the most common diagnosis you make. In other instances you may need to write down basic information during the appointment – type them out if you can or have someone in your office do it. You know why…your handwriting is illegible.

* Ask questions to check for basic understanding throughout visits.

* Offer places or web sites where patients can go to get more information. Giving this information to them in a hand-out, or having someone else in your office email them the information after the appointment works well too. It also ensures that any research they do on their own is coming from reliable sources and not just fanatic people out there on the Internet.

Take a few minutes this week and simply look at the written material you give to patients. Whether you provide it when they first visit your office, or educational materials you send home with them throughout their treatment. Can your middle schooler understand it?

If not, get back to the drawing board. Making sure your patients understand you is key to both your success and good health.

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