It’s no secret – effectively communicating health information to patients is hard (and getting them to fully comprehend it can be even harder).
While working with her team here at Emmi, collaborating with industry leaders and conducting research from within the community, Editorial Director, Geri Lynn Baumblatt has gained unique insight into how healthcare professionals can better communicate with patients.
Here are a few of her tips:
Don't Forget "The Why"
I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to blindly do things just because someone tells me to. Yet we expect patients to do this all the time -- and when they don’t we brand them “non-adherent.” We all have that inner 3-year old that just wants to know “why.” But more than curiosity, we need to make sense of the information.
And when we don’t give people “the why,” or assume they already know why, they will fill in the blank on their own. Take this real example: a bariatric patient is told not to eat or drink 8 hours before his surgery. No reason. Just do it. He shows up having had breakfast. When asked why he didn’t follow instructions, he says “Oh, I thought my doctor just wanted me to start dieting.”
This person is not stupid, he was just trying to make sense of seemingly meaningless orders. A story closer to home: a friend of mine didn’t heed instructions not to smoke in the days after oral surgery. Only after a dry socket developed did the oral surgeon explain that smoking both affects healing and that any kind of sucking action, including cigarettes, and not just through straws, can dislodge the blood clot. Once back home and in pain she said, “Well, if I had known that, I wouldn’t have smoked.”
Talk About Myths
Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster aside, there are lots of myths and half-truths floating around healthcare. After all, if you’re breastfeeding there’s no possible way you can get pregnant, right?
Of course, you can wait to see if patients ask you about things like this, but chances are they may not realize something’s a myth, or a partial myth, especially when many things sound like common sense. Why would anyone doubt if bed rest is a good idea for low back pain? It certainly sounds right.
Plus, real experiences can reinforce myths. Many people still think the flu shot will give them the flu because they didn’t feel great the next day. They probably didn’t actually have the flu, but it still might mean they’ll avoid getting vaccinated for the next few years.
With something like breastfeeding it can just mean validating that it may play a role in preventing pregnancy, but it doesn’t guarantee a woman won’t get pregnant. For something like low back pain, it may be more challenging to help people understand that even though walking may hurt, that blood flow is important for their back to heal.
But proactively talking about common myths, and talking about them respectfully, can make all the difference in patient understanding.
That’s right, when telling people about a procedure or a new diagnosis, it helps to be a little bit psychic. To be fair, you don’t actually have to be psychic, so much as seem psychic.
You probably already know the questions, fears and worries patients have around certain procedures or diagnoses: When is it okay to have sex again? Will my scar be noticeable? When can I drive again?
These questions weigh on people’s minds. And it may even be hard for them to concentrate on anything else you say until they get an answer. Sometimes they feel embarrassed to ask because they have a question about something like ED or depression medication, other times they’re embarrassed that what they’re worried about is something cosmetic, like a scar. Or it’s the real day-to-day concerns about being able to care for their family.
So, if they don’t bring it up themselves, normalize those questions with a simple "now with this procedure, a lot of people ask…" It’s amazing the relief they feel to know they’re not the only ones with this question and that they didn’t have to be the one to bring it up.
Geri has shared these tips and continues to share others on the Association of Patient Experience website.
Each month she highlights a different way healthcare professionals can improve patient engagement and education.
Check out some of her other suggestions, and let us know some of your own in the comments.