In healthcare, there are a lot of complex terms and concepts that are not familiar to the average person. Do you know if you are explaining things well enough for your patients to understand?
It’s a topic we broach fairly often with practices we work with, especially when it comes to writing content. Most physicians and surgeons are used to writing for medical journals–a very different and much more technical style of writing than what patients are used to reading. It’s great for sharing information with your peers, but not so much when you are trying to make sure your patients have enough information to make informed health decisions.
Additionally, statistics suggest that patients may understand less than you think (whether they say so to you or not). Only 12% of Americans have “proficient health literacy,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. This means that only a small percent of people know how to both understand and use healthcare terms.
It’s not that you intend for your patients to leave their office without understanding what you said. You just might not realize that you are using terminology your patients don’t understand, or that you are explaining things in a way that is confusing to the patient. Call it the curse of knowledge–you’re so comfortable with these terms that it simply doesn’t occur to you that people outside of your profession might not understand them. (Confession: We’re guilty of that sometimes in the marketing space, too!)
We frequently work with practices to better convey information in a “patient-friendly” way online. These are some of our tips for making sure patients can understand the information you share with them.
Use Simpler Terms
Simple language is key when sharing information with patients. According to a 2020 Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, more than half of Americans aged 16-74 read below the sixth-grade level. To ensure that as many people understand your information as possible, it’s best to write it at about a fifth-grade level.
Additionally, a recent study found that patients have a much better understanding of their health information when their providers avoid heavy use of medical jargon. However, according to the study, this goes beyond just the terms that are obviously medical jargon. There are several words that have different connotations in layman’s terms compared to how the medical community uses them.
One of the examples the article cites is the use of the word “positive.” Outside of healthcare, this word is associated with good things (such as having a positive attitude). On the other hand, when a healthcare provider tells a patient that their test results came back positive, that is usually a bad thing. While you might assume that it’s common knowledge that positive test results indicate that a person has the condition you were testing for, that may not always be the case. It could be a lot clearer to say something like “Your test results came back, and it shows that you have [condition].”
This is just one example–there are many other confusing terms used in healthcare that might not even occur to you. We recommend simplifying wherever you can–either taking medical jargon out completely, or providing a more thorough explanation of what the term means if you feel it must be used. Patients may already be anxious or scared about a medical diagnosis–you don’t want to use terminology that might exacerbate those fears.
Use Analogies to Explain Complicated Concepts
Analogies are a great way to explain something that is a bit more complicated. Take something a patient already understands, and relate that to something they do.
In orthopedics and spine surgery, a couple of common analogies our clients have used include:
- “Rotator cuff tears often happen gradually over time, like a rope that is fraying.”
- “Think of a spinal disc like a jelly donut. If you squeeze the donut, the jelly will come out from the center. This is similar to what happens when a disc herniates.”
Some other common analogies we’ve heard from healthcare professionals include:
- “The heart is like a pump.”
- “The kidneys act like filters.”
- During pregnancy, when the size of the baby is compared to fruits and other common objects.
Analogies might not be possible in every situation, but there are probably at least a few conditions, treatments, or procedures in your specialty that you can relate to something familiar to your patients. Sometimes you might change your analogies based on the patient’s interests. For example, if a patient is into sports, there might be some analogies you can draw from that.
Of course, it is important that the analogy doesn’t make the concept more confusing for a patient. When in doubt, ask if what you’re explaining makes sense to the patient, or if they need more explanation.
Use Visuals to Show How Something Works
Sometimes, things are better explained visually. This could mean showing the patient a 3D model, an image, an infographic, etc. Whenever possible, we advise practices to use their own photography and imagery because patients tend to respond to that better than stock images.
For example, the term “third metatarsal” might not mean much to a patient in reference to a fracture in the foot, but a diagram of the foot that labels the different bones helps to provide needed context to understand the injury.
When explaining in the office, you can also use physical items to explain information. For example, if you are explaining a joint replacement surgery, it can be helpful to have a sample implant to show the patient how it works. On your website, you can use a 3D animation to achieve a similar effect.
Infographics, which are typically a combination of text and visuals, can be helpful for summing up the information you’ve shared with a patient. They can be printed in brochures or used online to serve as a reference point. Sometimes, people retain information better when it’s presented with a visual component.
When In Doubt, Ask
Patients may feel embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand the information you’ve told them, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you’ve created an open environment where your patients feel comfortable asking questions, they are more likely to speak up if they don’t understand. And when you’ve already taken the time to give a thorough explanation, your patients will feel that you truly want them to understand.
As we said at the beginning–it’s not that you’re trying to hide something from your patients, and that you don’t want them to understand. When your patients have a full understanding of what’s going on with their bodies and why you recommend (or don’t recommend) certain treatment options, they are more likely to heed your advice and stick with the plan.
Ultimately, that’s a great result for everyone.