Has any of these situations ever happened to you or someone you know?
-You go to the doctor and forget to ask the question you really wanted to (or are embarrassed to).
-You try to describe pain you’re experiencing, but what you say doesn’t capture how you feel.
-Someone explains a treatment recommendation, a test result or a diagnosis, but you don’t fully understand it.
You’re not alone. In fact, I submit that struggling with language when we talk about healthcare is part of the human condition. It affects all of us, no matter our level of education, occupation or sophistication. Doctors-as-patients wrestle with this too.
Let’s face it: There is the English we all speak, and the English that healthcare professionals speak. When you and I encounter the technical language of medicine and health, it can cause confusion, anxiety, doubt and avoidance.
The dialect of healthcare professionals has its own name: “doctor-speak.” Type doctor-speak into your search engine and you’ll find lots of places to go and explore. Type in “patient-speak” and you’ll come up empty. That makes sense, because patients speak like you and me. And if you pop doctor-speak into a visual dictionary, the word connects to just one other bubble: “jargon.”
Jargon isn’t intrinsically bad – every field has it. In fact, as the shorthand for professionals and experts, it can both summarize and clarify a situation. Of course we, on the outside, can have exactly the opposite experience, feeling less informed and more anxious. Nowhere can this happen more frustratingly than in the healthcare provider/patient relationship.
This problem is neither new nor uniquely American. The UK Health Foundation found it disruptive enough to fund the 2012 report “When Doctors and Patients Talk: Making Sense of the Consultation,” co-authored by Martin Fisher and Gill Eraut. It reached a range of conclusions, from which they developed usefully articulated recommendations. For example, they provide specific suggestions to help both doctors and patients properly prepare for the consultation to improve the communication, experience and outcome.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, in small and large ways. And even if the problem isn’t sui generis, it carries a uniquely American urgency. Both demographic and regulatory changes are driving the need, now.
Our demand for healthcare resources is dramatically outstripping supply. As the Affordable Healthcare Act continues to bring millions of new healthcare consumers into the market, and as baby boomers age through Medicare, the need for healthcare resources will only grow. But the supply side isn’t keeping pace. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, nearly 20 percent of Americans live in areas with too few primary-care doctors. That’s today, and tomorrow doesn’t get prettier: The AAMC’s (Association of American Medical Colleges) Center for Workforce Studies estimates that by 2020, the United States will face a shortage of 45,000 primary-care physicians and 46,100 surgeons and medical specialists.
It’s a frightening prospect, often greeted with understandable handwringing. We need a multifaceted solution, and without question, part of it can grow from the quality of communication between providers of healthcare and consumers of healthcare. Fewer doctors seeing more patients create an imperative for communication as clear and effective as possible – to bring patients prompt, actionable diagnoses that encourage appropriate treatments. The margin for error will only shrink.
An unfolding corollary offers insight and instruction. “Doctor extenders” in the roles of physician assistants and nurse practitioners have taken on many of the clinical responsibilities of physicians, including diagnosis and treatment. (The amount of autonomy and independence these “extenders” enjoy varies.) But from the literature, it appears that their approach to patients carries a unique value. They demystify a doctor’s findings and wishes for a patient. The importance of this need for clear communication shows, as sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate growth in these professions of about 25 percent over the next eight to 10 years (college grads, take note). Even this number may prove conserva¬tive, given the increasing demand for these specialties.
The fact that these physician assistants and nurse practitioners, who typically spend more time with a patient than the primary physician does, helps explain growing patient acceptance of and satisfaction with “extenders.” And notably, these two groups usually make a conscious effort to keep medical jargon out of their conversation. They want to speak their patients’ language.
This realization gives us one bridge across the communication gap, and we can work on others. We can encourage healthcare professionals to communicate better by speaking in a more human manner. On the patient side, we can improve consumers’ healthcare IQ by familiarizing people with the language of medicine and health. We can also explore the dynamic between providers and consumers to understand what’s working and what would lend itself to working better. If we believe that improving communication can enhance outcomes, we need to make improvement our priority.
Wendy Lurrie – Managing Director, gyro:human
Wendy Lurrie is the managing director of gyro’s healthcare practice gyro:human based in New York. gyro:human is gyro’s newly formed U.S. division dedicated to all aspects of the healthcare industry. Lurrie is a healthcare industry ace who has worked with United Healthcare, Aetna, Eli Lilly and Company, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, to name a few.
She held executive positions at major agencies Draft, DraftFCB and Grey, where her responsibilities included the management and growth of the healthcare portfolios. Lurrie has worked on the client side as a VP of marketing at Travelers as well as served a consultant specializing in marketing strategy.