Too often, a patient leaving a hospital or clinic immediately forgets much of the doctor’s advice and instructions. This can be true for both in-person and telemedicine visits, and for every condition from a mild virus to life-threatening conditions. The reasons for this forgetfulness range from doctors visits being stressful for the average person (and stress impairs memory) to some patients being healthcare illiterate. The result of this failure to adhere to medical directions? A staggeringly high cost in lives lost and dollars squandered.
The good news is it’s in every physician’s power to change that. You can take steps so that patients are more likely to understand and remember what you tell them. Here are four easy-to-execute actions that simply require a little mindfulness and vigilance.
1. Be self-aware
In a typical 20-minute patient visit, doctors reported spending eight minutes looking at a patient’s digital record and just 12 interacting with the patient. So 40 percent of the visit is spent not reading the patient’s body language, not looking for the emotions, discomfort, or apprehension they may be signaling. White coat syndrome, a.k.a. white coat hypertension, is well-known evidence that a lot goes on below the surface.
Do your actions and demeanor make you appear friendly and approachable? What is your body language communicating, whether in person or over a telemedicine app? Do you lean back with your hands behind your head (an unspoken sign of superiority)? Do you cross your arms (which some see as distancing yourself)? The last thing one wants to do is unknowingly contributing to a patient’s anxiety, so self-awareness of the message your body language is sending is critical.
Think of everything a smile communicates — warmth, friendliness, approachability — all the qualities necessary to disarm the reticent or fearful patient and open them up to freely communicate and more likely remember what they hear. Think of everything the lack of a smile conveys. Know of anyone who rarely smiles? How are they to communicate with? How are they to be around? An effort, right?
Unfortunately, the smile, even on the friendliest of people, can evaporate under the strain of a busy day. Lose it, and you risk losing the patient’s willingness to confide, listen fully, and retain your instructions.
3. Avoid jargon
TIA. BP. HR. TPR. Kidney panel. Morbidity. Hospitalist. Laborist. . . . The list of abbreviations, medical terms, and shorthand is as endless as it is necessary. But terms we might think everybody knows, well, they don’t. To patients, this is jargon — numbing, confusing, and the surest short-circuit to patient comprehension.
When lab results come back positive, you might be shocked at the percentage of patients who don’t know if the news calls for relief or concern. With only about 12 percent of patients being healthcare literate, physicians have to make the effort to explain medical terms, employ simple language, use analogies, and ask questions probing for comprehension.
4. Use the patient’s name… and often
Names are among a person’s most valued possessions, one of the very few things that most carry throughout their entire lives. Think of all the companies named after their creators — McDonalds, Adidas, Bacardi, Ben & Jerry’s, Bose. That is how much pride they, and most of us, have in names.
Using a patient’s name puts the two of you on a more level playing field. Ask the patient’s permission to use his or her first name, then use it in conversation often, and ensure you’re pronouncing it properly.
Although not every doctor feels comfortable being informal, you want to consider introducing yourself by your first name and encouraging the patient to use it. Doing so lowers the white coat syndrome barrier. If you have a name the average American ear finds challenging, offer an abbreviation of it.
With these few steps, you will go a long way to creating an environment where people really open up to you and will better understand, retain, and follow your instructions.