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BOTTOM LINE BLOG & RADIO

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To help support and counsel patients most effectively, clinicians need an accurate understanding of each individual's health status and behavior. However, many factors affect whether people honestly report anything from depression to alcohol use to taking medications. How can in-person strategies and technology help?

In the following blog post, republished from the Association for Patient Experience, Geri Baumblatt, executive director of patient engagement, Emmi and  Amy Bucher, behavior change design director at Mad Pow discuss Amy's recent experience and how to encourage honest disclosure on sensitive topics.

By Amy Bucher, PhD & Geri Lynn Baumblatt, MA

How much alcohol do you drink each week?
Do we need to do an STD test today?
Have you been feeling depressed?
Are you taking your medication every day?
Does your family have enough to eat?
 
Did you flinch when thinking about how you’d answer any of these questions?


One of the first obstacles to improving health outcomes is getting an honest assessment of someone’s current behaviors and barriers to change. There are many reasons why either the patient or the provider might not be able to have a frank and accurate conversation.

Why are these conversations so difficult?

  • It can be difficult for people to share sensitive information. They may be embarrassed to admit “bad” behavior, especially with respect to topics like smoking, drinking, or sexual activity.
  • A related phenomenon is social desirability. People want to please providers with the “right” answers, so they may not admit they’ve skipped medication doses or indulged in multiple martinis. They may not even admit these behaviors to themselves!
  • Sometimes people feel embarrassment, shame, or failure from their behaviors.
  • Or they may not understand critical information the provider needs and unintentionally omit or misrepresent something.

On the provider side:
 
There’s pressure to move quickly through a visit and document specific information for reimbursement. Time pressure forces providers to focus on the most physically pressing issues a patient has, which can sometimes overlook the root causes of health problems. Depression and social isolation, for example, are highly correlated with poor cardiac health and stroke incidence, but may not fall within the realm of a typical provider conversation.
 
And unfortunately, most providers do not receive training in skilled communication as part of their medical education, so they may not have the skills to elicit honest and meaningful responses from reluctant patients.
 
Provider communication skills are critical not just for the content of conversations, but also for the non-verbal responses that flavor them. Human beings in general are incredibly sensitive to nonverbal cues like facial expressions and tones of voice, and can easily detect disapproval or other negative emotions. Even a provider who is trying to express acceptance and encourage disclosure may reveal a negative response through nonverbal behaviors. To avoid this, providers need an awareness of their nonverbal behaviors and practice in controlling them.
 
Consider Amy’s recent experience: 

At a recent wellness visit, being aware of the above issues in patient communication, Amy decided to be as forthright as possible. When the doctor asked how much she drinks in a typical week, Amy offered an honest response, knowing it was more than clinically recommended. But the doctor’s reaction was much more negative than Amy anticipated; although her drinking exceeds guidelines, it’s not outside of social norms. The doctor paused, and sat up straighter. Her facial expression turned very stern. Then, she told Amy that behavior was incredibly unhealthy and reviewed the clinical guidelines for alcohol. The conversation completely changed in tone, and in return for her honesty, Amy felt uncomfortable.
 
A physician friend later told Amy that she automatically does mental multiplication for any self-report data to correct for patient under-reporting. Amy’s doctor may have thought she was drinking much more than she confessed and reacted to that larger number. So even though Amy attempted to give the best possible information, the doctor’s reaction discouraged future disclosures.
 
How can we encourage honest disclosure?

If you're in the provider seat, you have an opportunity to help your patients feel normal and safe. When you ask questions about potentially sensitive topics, let patients know they’re not the only ones who face these challenges. This also creates a cue that you’re not going to scold them or be disappointed in them. Try prefacing your question with normalizing statements, such as:


“A lot of people I talk to have trouble taking medication…”

“You know, a lot of people with diabetes tend to get frustrated or down. How have you been feeling?”
 
Using a “universal safe reflection” as a response can help too. Rather than offering any kind of an evaluation, reply with a more neutral phrase that helps you restate the patient’s concern. For example:
 
“It sounds like you’re struggling with . . .”
 
“You’re not ready to . . .”
 
The universal safe reflection technique can reduce the appearance of judgment, and offers an opportunity to clarify your understanding by restating what you heard.
 
Talk to the... robot?

Providers increasingly have additional tools in their toolkit to engage patients outside the clinic. Digital tools enable patient engagement in a virtual setting through interactive calls, online surveys, and digital coaching programs. These digital technologies tend to elicit more honest responses from users than face-to-face conversations.
 
Amy found this to be true when working with a digital behavior change platform. Her team matched self-reported data about taking medications through digital interaction against verified claims information and found that people were pretty honest about their adherence. Geri has also seen this is in interactive calls and online patient engagement programs, where people often disclose whether they smoked in the weeks before surgery, if their child is self harming, or if their family has enough to eat.

Why are we more honest in virtual interactions? 

We have a hunch that even though people know their responses will reach real people, they have a sense of privacy. Similar to how awkward conversations can be easier in a car or on the phone where there’s no face-to-face contact or immediate nonverbal feedback, it can be less distressing to discuss embarrassing subjects through a technology medium. People also know that a digital system is unlikely to deliver criticism--and in fact, many digital health tools are deliberately programmed to offer supportive and encouraging feedback.
 
As providers look for ways to integrate digital tools into their practices, one that has some promise for facilitating patient disclosure is to have patients go through a technology-enabled intake where they can share sensitive information in advance of a visit. This also gives providers time to prepare a more neutral response that facilitates a productive discussion.

Want to learn more from Amy and Geri? Vote for their SXSW panel, "What’s in a Nudge? Behavior Change in Health" today.