Come on, confess – you’ve been there, too! You go to your doctor, register your complaints, listen to the doctor’s explanation and instructions, then go back home and say, “What just happened?”
It’s a fact: healthcare is complicated … and with a constant infusion of newer, faster, non-invasive and robotic technologies and techniques, it’s no wonder that patients are frequently bewildered by the sheer number and variety of decisions they must make in helping to manage their own health issues.
“Health literacy – which is the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information – is a necessary component for ensuring the best possible outcomes in any clinical setting,” explains Vincent Miller, MD, at Northern Family Medicine, a bustling local primary-care practice. “Health literacy is at the core of how well …or poorly … healthcare providers and patients communicate with each other,” he says. Indeed, according to the American Medical Association, health literacy is believed to be a stronger predictor of health outcomes than social and economic status, education, gender and age.
So important is health literacy that the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has advanced a National Action Plan to improve health-related communications. The Plan is based on two core principles: that all people have the right to health information that helps them make informed decisions; and that health services should be delivered in ways that are easy to understand that improve health, longevity, and quality-of-life.
While Dr. Miller acknowledges that both providers and patients have a responsibility to communicate effectively with one another, he puts the greater burden on providers – which include physicians, nurses, technicians and other members of the healthcare team. “We’ve been educated and trained to use medical jargon and verbal short-cuts when speaking colleague-to-colleague, but that’s neither fair nor appropriate when speaking to patients,” he says. “For example, instead of telling a patient his artery is partially occluded, it makes more sense to say it’s partially blocked.”
Dr. Miller notes that the Internet has played an important role during the past several years in helping bridge the communications gap between doctors and patients. “More often than not, patients come to see me these days with information they’ve downloaded from their home computers,” he says. “But since most of those patients understand that anything they get from the Internet is usually incomplete and generic, I then build on their basic knowledge of the problem so that, together, we can identify the issue that is specific to them and agree on a treatment plan, as needed.”
Achieving health literacy is an even greater challenge for patients with sensory disabilities or those who do not speak English. To that end, hospitals and doctors’ offices have embraced a variety of programs and tools – such as TTY machines and certified language interpreters — to assist those patients in communicating directly with providers. “As caregivers, we also know that stress, anxiety, pain, and being in an unfamiliar environment can create informational vacuums for patients and family members,” says Dr. Miller, “and we have been trained to identify and minimize any issues that inhibit productive communication.”
Dr. Miller notes that the following tips can be used by all patients to improve their health literacy:
- Bring all your medicines to your next doctor’s visit.
- Make a Pill Card
- Let the doctor’s office know you need an Interpreter if you do not speak or understand
English very well.