Patient-Doctor Communication. What’s the Impact on Patient Health?

Researchfemale doctor talks to female patient: patient-doctor communication in healthcare has shown that effective patient-doctor communication in healthcare is linked to higher patient and doctor satisfaction, better adherence to treatment plans, more appropriate medical decisions and better health outcomes.

This should be enough to convince you that effective, clear conversations with your medical team are crucial. However, effective communication between the patient and doctor is easier said than done.

Most patients struggle with health literacy, making it hard to understand and use medical information.

There is a lot of information coming at you as you discuss diagnosis, testing and treatment options with your doctor. Patients (and their families) are likely to be hearing medical terms that are new and perhaps complicated.  The stress of a serious health challenge can make it even harder to understand medical information.

What exactly is health literacy?

Health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” as defined by the Institute of Medicine.

How common is health illiteracy?

Nearly 90% of adults have difficulty understanding and using the everyday health information that is routinely available in healthcare facilities and other sources.  This has been called a hidden epidemic.

How do low health literacy rates impact patients?

Struggling to understand and use health information can negatively affect health status, health outcomes and health costs. Navigating the health care system requires patients (and family caregivers) to understand complex written and spoken information, but that is often not possible. When patients can’t understand the information, it is very difficult to take the actions required for their health, and/or make appropriate health decisions.

Doctors don’t always provide information that patients can easily understand.

Given the low health literacy rates, doctors should, but don’t always, provide patients with medical information they can easily understand. Furthermore, doctors should make sure their patients understand the information, and take the time to answer any questions.

To maximize understanding, written materials should:

  • Be written in plain words, with no medical jargon
  • Include diagrams and simple pictures as appropriate
  • Use bullet points and short sentences
  • Emphasize what the patient needs to do
  • Not include unnecessary information

When conveying information orally, doctors and other medical staff should:

  • Encourage open communication with patients, including encouraging patients to ask questions
  • Only communicate key points, avoiding excessive information
  • Speak slowly and avoid medical jargon
  • Use analogies that patients can relate to
  • Read their handouts with the patient, highlighting and circling important parts

Doctors interrupt.

Information provided by doctors is only one aspect of all patient-doctor communications. The doctor must listen to the patient. Since a patient’s story is critical for a proper diagnosis, it’s essential that doctors listen carefully to the patient. Unfortunately, many doctors find it hard to listen intently. Studies have shown that doctors are interrupting patients just 12 seconds into their opening statements describing their symptoms and issues – both in emergency departments and in primary care offices.

Doctors and patients might not be on the same page.

What if the patient and doctor are not in sync with what is being discussed? It turns out that is happening more than it should. A study asked doctors to complete a survey about a recent patient visit, noting what they believed their patients thought was the cause, meaning, treatment and control of their conditions. This information is critical, yet patients and doctors were frequently not on the same page! The doctors’ perceptions of their patients’ beliefs were significantly different than what the patients thought. Interestingly, doctors expected their patients’ beliefs to be more aligned with their own beliefs.

The study found that doctors had a better understanding of their patients’ views when patients asked frequent questions, expressed concerns and stated their own opinions. In general, doctors had a harder time judging their patients’ beliefs when the patients were a different race from their own.

Improving communication can reduce the risk of medical errors.

It can be very intimidating to speak up when something doesn’t seem right, or you think your doctor is not listening to you. However, your health, and maybe even your life, might depend on your doctor’s willingness and ability to hear your voice. Recent research analyzed previous studies to determine the impact of communication on patient safety.  The authors found that “speaking up is one of the critical behaviors of patient safety“. It’s important to note that all patients, families and medical professionals should speak up when they something doesn’t seem right.

How can you communicate effectively with your medical team?

Communication is obviously a two-way street. Follow these tips to improve communication with your medical team:

  • Write down your “story” before every appointment.
  • Make sure your doctor hears your story. If the doctor interrupts you, continue where you left off – don’t get sidetracked.
  • Write down your questions before each appointment.
  • Take careful, detailed notes while still in the office. Write down the answers to your questions and other important information.
  • If you don’t understand what the doctor is saying, ask for clarification. Repeat your questions until you understand the information provided.
  • Ask for written materials, including diagrams and illustrations as needed.
  • Make sure you understood the doctor correctly by repeating what you heard for confirmation.
  • If something doesn’t seem right, speak up!

For more tips, read the Zaggo blog 10 Tips for a Better Medical Appointment.

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