Information is a patient’s greatest ally, but it’s no help if they can’t understand it.
This means that for many of your patients, simply handing over a sheet of dense safety information or quickly firing off a list of instructions isn’t going to be enough. No matter how you present patients with information, using simple communication techniques can help them understand the important tips you have for them. Here are a few easy tips to help improve your ability to communicate in plain language.
1. Use an Analogy
When I first began practicing, my director of pharmacy told me he always used the idea of holding his thumb over a firehose and altering its position to explain the concept of high blood pressure and how diuretics work to lower blood pressure. Another example would be equating how a bacteriostatic antibiotic fights infection to running defense on a football field: You can keep the offensive line (bacteria) at bay, but it doesn’t necessarily make them go away.
2. Explain the Why
We all have a natural tendency to misunderstand something because we stop listening if we don't see the value in the topic presented. Would you pay attention to your pharmacist’s instructions on how to take that new green pill if you didn’t know what it was for or how it could help improve your health? It’s much easier to hold a person’s attention and help them grasp concepts once you establish the importance or the need.
3. Take the Makeup Artist's Approach
Less is more. If you give the patient too much information at one time, no matter their level of competency, you will lose them and may even confuse them. Focus on illustrating the big concepts and provide important details sparingly based on your assessments of the patient’s level of engagement and understanding.
4. Make it Kid Friendly
Ask yourself, "Would my third-grader understand this concept given my current word choice?" If not, you probably need to scale back and consider using simpler language. Imagine explaining the concept to your neighbor or to one of your friends and apply a similarly casual approach to communicating with your patient. Just make sure you talk to the patient and not at them.
5. Speak in Short Sentences
The longer the sentence, the more opportunity for patients to get lost in the translation. It doesn’t mean you must speak in caveman language or only use “See Spot run” language, but it does mean being concise and presenting information in a logical manner. The same thing applies if you’re writing out instructions for the patient.
6. Keep it Simple
Use simple words and short phrases to describe complex words and concepts when possible. This may be obvious, but it’s still worth noting. Ask yourself: Would a 9-year-old understand why her mom’s new diuretic is an antihypertensive that will help reduce her edema? If not, then you might consider rephrasing your language.
7. Be Culturally Sensitive
Whether you are speaking to a patient in English, Spanish, or another language, it’s important to consider how cultural habits and communication may affect a patient’s understanding of your information. It may also alter the information you choose to focus on during your consultation.
8. Plain Isn’t Bad
Understand that communicating in plain language does not mean you are “dumbing down” your speech or your own intellect. In fact, some data show that the higher the level of education, the more likely people are to want to read content in plain language. At the end of the day, communication is about human connection. After all, you’ll catch more flies with honey.