Communication and Health Care Literacy Issues
The ability to translate scientific facts into layman's terms will be one of your biggest assets. Convincing a patient who is in denial to learn to do something will become one of your most admired qualities. But how do you do this? The simple answer is communication. However, the more complex answer is also communication.
Speaking and Listening
Communication is a two-way process. In simple terms, it implies both speaking and listening. Some people think communication is just the process of getting their ideas across. But how do they know they got the idea across? Because the listener understood what they said and reacted to it in a meaningful way.
Communication is also nonverbal. Hand gestures, facial expressions, body language, attitude, and eye contact all play a role in communication. In dealing with someone who is deaf or speaks another language, communication may have to be all nonverbal.
Listening is vital to successful communication. You cannot listen effectively if you are talking or paying attention to something else, or if you're not willing to listen or hear what is being said.
Effective verbal communication in the health care arena is essential. Literacy (the ability to read and write) is a major issue in this country. Health care professionals often take it for granted that people can read and write, and yet, for more than 40 million Americans this is not true. According to the U.S. Department of Education, another 10 million Americans can barely read and write their names and simple information.
Health care literacy experts report that almost 90 million Americans (half of the population) will have at least some degree of difficulty understanding information and forms regarding their own health care. They will also have some degree of difficulty in accessing their health care system because of literacy issues.
Sometimes listening is the most important form of communication for the health care professional. You must always listen carefully to what your patients and their friends and family are telling you. Whether they are telling you something new or telling you what they think you said to them, the information is vital to a successful outcome.
Here's Something to Read …
One of the first inclinations in explaining something new to someone is to hand the person something to read on the subject. This happens most often when time is limited, and the literature is meant as a reference source to reinforce the teaching and answer questions. In health care, time is always limited, because time is money, and health care costs are skyrocketing. So you give the patient the simple explanation, hand them a pamphlet to read, and tell them to come back next time with questions!
Illiteracy carries a stigma of shame. It is highly doubtful that the patient will tell you he can't read that pamphlet. You may not even have a clue about his literacy issues because he seems too bright and knowledgeable to not be able to read. If you ask him to read it to you, or just to sit and read it for a few minutes and then you'll discuss it, you might at least glean that he doesn't “understand” what he “read” and you'll have a clue that you need to change your teaching approach with this patient.
In fact, as health care professionals began to grasp the concept and the vast extent of health care illiteracy, patient education roles for nurses and physician's assistants and pharmacists, for example, expanded tremendously, and they continue to do so. Today when you get a new prescription filled at a retail pharmacy, the pharmacist comes over to explain the drug to you and answer your questions in addition to providing you with a few precautionary labels on the bottle and a drug pamphlet from the manufacturer.
Communication not only involves delivering a message and listening to that message, but it also includes validating that the message was received and understood. In order for health care to be effective and the outcomes to be optimal, effective communication is essential. Communication is an art, and it needs to be polished regularly.