updated October 31, 2022
In part 1, we considered the importance of establishing a connection between doctors and patients before trying to communicate. The goal is to establish effective patient engagement.
Now we’re going to look at some practical aspects of exchanging information with doctors- remember, exchange means give something and receive something in return.
A failure to communicate
Doctors want to give patients the information they need and most of the time believe they have done so. We are surprised when patients come back and say we didn’t explain their problem and its treatment, or they didn’t understand what we told them about it. I think this happens for 2 reasons.
- We doctors tell patients what we think is important, but it may not be what you the patient or family considers most important.
- After patients hear part of what we say, they get saturated and don’t hear the rest, especially when it is emotionally charged.
That’s why it is so important for patients and families to ask questions; don’t just rely on what the doctors volunteer. What is important to them may not be what is most important to you. And the more specific questions you ask, the more detailed the information you receive will be.
The one question you should always ask a doctor at each visit is
Urgent vs Important
The most important problem that the doctor finds may not be the one you were admitted for or came to the office for. Or if you came with multiple problems, the most important may not be the one that seemed most urgent to you.
For example, you may go to an emergency facility for an injury that caused a large gash on your leg, one that needs stitches. This is an urgent problem that needs to be treated.
But the doctor finds you have high blood pressure that you are unaware of. High blood pressure can lead to heart failure and stroke if left untreated. So the doctor is going to instruct you to see your primary care doctor to have this problem addressed. In terms of your long term health, the high blood pressure is your most important problem today.
What questions do you have?
You will get more helpful information from your doctor if your questions are as specific as you can ask; always inquire as to how tests and procedures this will affect your treatment and recovery. Here are some examples-
- What did the xray show and what does mean for my problem?
- What was the blood test result and will it change my treatment?
- How will this procedure change my condition?
- What needs to happen before he can move out of ICU?
Write important things down. Questions that you want to ask. Information that the doctors need. Answers to the questions. Refer to it each time you speak with the doctors.
When you or a loved one is in the hospital, your main concern is going home. When the time comes to be discharged, it is just as important to ask questions and understand the plan as during the illness.
Too many times I have had patients return to my office after a hospital stay unable to give me any information about their illness and care . Important information to know include
- What problems were treated during this admission and how did they change?
- What will we need to do at home to continue the recovery?
- When do we need to see a doctor and which doctor do we see?
- What medications will I need to be on when I go home?
Understanding your doctor; what do those words mean?
Doctors are being encouraged and taught to use “plain language” when talking to patients, meaning limiting the use of medical jargon. I agree that a string of highly technical terms of any kind makes communication harder.
But I’m not sure that simply using plain words solves the problem either. Whatever terms you use to exchange information must be understood by both persons. And that is not always the case.
Here’s an example.
If a doctor says that you or a relative has had a Myocardial infarction , do you know that that means a Heart attack?
But, do you know exactly what heart attack means? Probably not.
So, if the doctor says “heart attack” without adding any additional information, you should ask
- “I understand a heart attack to mean ________. Is this correct?”
- “I do not understand what a heart attack is. Please explain.”
You can master medical terminology . How many new things have you learned in the past 5 years? Each of those had a vocabulary and instructions that you learned and now use regularly. Think of your first smartphone, tablet, digital camera or even a coffee maker . You make the effort to learn what is important to you .
Make an attempt to learn about your and your family’s medical issues; even if you don’t understand it completely your doctor will appreciate that you are trying.
In addition to doctors you have nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, physical therapists, social workers who can answer questions. Ask for referrals to community resources.
There are helpful resources on the Internet so anyone with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone has access to medical information anywhere anytime.
Sometimes it is helpful to find accurate definitions of medical terms. Consider using the
Another resource is the plain language thesaurus for Health Communications
will help you understand where medical terms come from and how to interpret terms that are new to you. There’s even a test at the end to see how much you learned.