Doctors Need to Talk to Patients at a Layperson’s Level

Do you ever wonder how much your patients understand the advice you give them as their primary care physician?

A recent American Health Information Association study revealed that 62% of Americans have little confidence in understanding the health advice and information their primary care physicians give to them. As a result, the patients won’t comply with their doctor’s advice, and it will cause them to suffer minor to severe health consequences.

A primary care physician must inform patients about their health in a way that makes sense to them. If health literacy is the issue, doctors must find a way to convert complicated medical terminology into layperson’s terms for the patient to understand. It may be the only way to bridge the gap between understanding and not understanding health advice for the patient.

Simplify the Language

Health professionals don’t need to overcomplicate their medical information and advice given to patients. You may be accustomed to using complex medical terminology because you studied it in medical school and use it daily. But you have to realize your patients did not study these complex medical terms and information, so you cannot expect them to have the same understanding of them as you do.

Therefore, reconsider the phrases, abbreviations, and words you use to communicate with patients. If you need to talk about a particular disease like pulmonary toilet, Alzheimer’s, or diuresis, you should immediately explain the definition of the term in easy-to-understand language.

Sometimes you may even have to do this with more standard medical terms like chronic arthritis or acute anxiety. Chronic and acute may seem like easy words to understand, but how many laypeople use those words in their everyday vocabulary? Not too many, so you need to do everything possible to help your patients to understand what you are telling them.

Why Don’t More Doctors Do This?

The American healthcare industry predominately uses the fee-based service model, making patients more dependent on their doctors over a long period. Under this model, doctors write prescriptions and provide the bare minimum of treatment services to help mitigate a patient’s symptoms. But the idea of explaining terms and using easy-to-understand language is not part of the fee-based service model. Why would it be?

The fee-based service model is concerned about profits over the quality of healthcare. Doctors don’t have the opportunity to spend a long time advising and treating patients because the average doctor-patient session lasts only a few minutes. This doesn’t give the doctors enough time to explain themselves and verify whether the patients understand them.

For this reason, the value-based service model is far better for solving this problem because it offers transformational care rather than transactional care. Under the value-based model, doctors are incentivized to spend more time with patients and explain their health conditions and treatment options in a way they can understand.

In addition, the patients build more trust with the doctors because their sessions are longer. So the patients feel more comfortable asking questions to their doctors if they don’t understand anything that was said to them.

The Three Things You Must Explain

 If you desire to provide value-based care to your patients, please consider the common barriers that prevent some patients from understanding the advice you give to them. These could be socioeconomic factors or barriers involving language, literacy, personal attitudes, and cultural customs. All these things play a role in how much a patient understands you.

Of course, nobody expects you to be an expert in each patient’s culture or background. So you can adhere to specific “plain language guidelines” using everyday words and phrases that most patients will understand, regardless of their culture or background. Use this plain language to explain the following three critical things during their visit with you:

  • The overall health problem they have
  • The appropriate actions and treatments they need to take to get better
  • The consequences of not taking those actions

If you can explain these three concepts to patients about their health, they will be more prone to listen to you. Rather than focusing on fancy medical terms, use simple language to explain their problem and the actions needed to mitigate or eliminate it. Then ask your patients if they have any questions or need clarification on anything you said.

That way, you will know whether your patients understand you or if you need to simplify your language even further. All patients have a different level of medical comprehension, so each patient’s version of “simple or plain language” is different.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has a special Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit to assist doctors in communicating with patients more clearly.

Learn More

 Would you like to learn more about Primary Medical Care Center’s approach to communicating with patients more clearly? Call us at (305) 751-1500 to speak with one of our staff members for more information.