HealthFebruary 12, 2020

Six strategies for discussing complex medical terms with patients

By: Heidi Moawad, MD
Complex medical terms and concepts can create a barrier between you and your patients. Use these six strategies to help ensure positive outcomes.

The way you talk to your patients has consequences for the way they make important decisions about their medical care, ultimately affecting how they feel about you as their physician. Yet a patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan may include complex medical terms and concepts they’re unfamiliar with, especially when the condition isn’t common or is very complicated. A lack of understanding around key treatment issues can create problems—not only for outcomes but also for your relationship.

To be effective, your communication must be tailored to your patients’ needs, which means reading your patients to assess how much detail they want to know and how familiar they already are with their condition. Of course, this may be easier said than done. Here are six strategies to keep in mind when discussing complicated medical issues.

1. Start with the big picture

When speaking with patients, it’s helpful to frame what you’re saying in a way that drives major points home. Often, there are multiple issues at play, and patients may be focused on things like convenience, while you’re focused on avoiding complications.

One way to make sure that no one drops the ball is by targeting the big picture. For example, if your patient’s condition is expected to worsen if they don’t begin physical therapy, prioritizing that plan of action is of primary importance. Your patient, on the other hand, may be concerned about whether missing a scheduled medication dose will be problematic. Take the time to address this concern, but be sure to reemphasize the urgency of getting therapy.

2. Use patient-friendly terminology

Using clear language and avoiding vague or overly technical jargon will help your patients digest complex medical information. A study published in Health Literacy Research and Practice found that sometimes patients neither understand medical terminology nor recognize the gaps in their comprehension. Just as you would want your financial planner or appliance repair technician to use terms that you’re familiar with, your patients also benefit when you communicate in an easily comprehensible way. For instance, patients are more likely to understand tests to rule out “liver” disease than “hepatic” disease.

At the same time, take care to avoid oversimplifying your explanations. In many cases, it may not be appropriate to describe an immune condition as a problem with the patient’s “disease-fighting army” when speaking to an adult, even if some children would appreciate this type of explanation. Looking for clues to your patient’s level of understanding of the material will help you avoid patronizing language and tone.

3. Make the most of supplementary materials

Most patients have access to online health information. While this information is convenient and often presented in simple terms, we know that it can also be misleading, depending on who wrote it or who’s reading it. Nevertheless, because online health content is so ubiquitous, it makes sense for physicians to use online material as a supplement rather than avoiding it altogether. Consider proactively selecting resources that adequately explain the conditions you treat and providing a short list of reliable sources that your staff can give your patients. Or if possible, direct patients to your hospital website.

Other supplementary materials like printed literature and visual aids may be useful in communicating complex information, too. In fact, a recent survey published in Medical Decision Making revealed that most primary care physicians prefer to use visual representations of HbA1c test results when sharing results with patients.

4. Balance family support

Family members can be helpful when complex medical issues are being discussed. They may provide support, reassurance and encouragement, and a second set of ears can be helpful when it comes to remembering important steps in a care plan.

But sometimes loved ones can bring unwelcome confusion for your patient. Family members may blame the patient for an illness caused by a habit such as smoking, or they may become more stressed about the illness than the patient is, adding a burden for patients who would rather absorb the situation privately before sharing details with their loved ones.

Unless your patient’s family members have power of attorney, it’s important to take cues from your patient regarding the presence of others and to follow your patient’s wishes above any other concern.

5. Work around language barriers

When communicating with a patient who doesn’t understand the language you’re using, you may need to resort to special tools. Sometimes visual aids such as an X-ray of a fracture or blood glucose numbers can help when words can’t fully convey the message. Even asking your patient to draw a representation of their pain can help to make sure you understand their situation.

A translator or interpreter can be invaluable when discussing complex medical terms—but it’s crucial to use a professional who understands medical issues. A study published in the Advanced Journal of Emergency Medicine showed that translators who are not medically knowledgeable, including family members, are prone to conveying inaccurate information.

6. Check to see that everything is clear

Communication is a two-way street. You may assume your patient understands what you’re saying because you’ve explained this particular treatment or procedure numerous times, but it’s still important to make sure that this particular patient understands.

Each patient is coming from a different life experience, and if they know someone who had an unusually negative or positive outcome with a medical condition or treatment, it could color their understanding of their own situation. Sometimes a patient may be in denial about their illness, which can cause them to hear something that doesn’t match what you have said.

Discussing complex medical terms can be a challenge, but so much depends on your ability to master it. Start with these tips and stay alert to feedback as you progress. You can also seek help from association and institution guidelines, continuing medical education trainings and, of course, your colleagues, as Oncology Times suggests.

Heidi Moawad, MD