Improving Patient Communication

Patient communication. It's a hot topic for hospitals these days. The American Hospital Association places such emphasis on the matter that they have developed materials specifically to help hospitals improve their patient communication (link here). It is emphasized in med school and residency programs, discussed in countless articles. But is it top of mind for you and your practice?

Lest you underestimate the importance of patient communication, consider this: According to a Journal of American Osteopathic Association article, "patients who understand their doctors are more likely to acknowledge health problems, understand their treatment options, modify their behavior accordingly, and follow their medication schedules."(link here) Moreover, as discussed in previous posts, effective communication is directly linked to patient satisfaction.

The JAOA link above has some great tips for improving your own patient communication. In this post, I want to focus on resources that your practice can provide to improve your patients' understanding of conditions and treatments, and thus their overall experience.

1) Printed materials. Certainly this category is not a ground-breaking one. Everyone from the NIH to the AMA provide patient education brochures and handouts. It's not difficult to get one's hands on some free materials, but I want to remind you that free does not necessarily equal effective. Put some thought into the materials that you are providing to your patients. What are you trying to communicate? Are the materials specific enough to each patient, or do you try to get away with 2 or 3 generic brochures that cover many conditions? I particularly like these tips and tricks for evaluating and creating effective materials from the folks at UC Davis. Additionally, if you take the time to develop some proprietary materials for your own practice, you can take advantage of the opportunity to brand and market your practice.

2) Web resources. Is your website a good resource for patient education? Is your content educational and unbiased, free from unsubstantiated claims or marketing overtones? I am all for differentiating your practice and promoting cutting edge therapies, but there is an appropriate place for those messages. Your patient education web page is not it. Your web resources should be thorough, covering all reasonable treatments for a condition. If necessary, provide links to articles both for and against any experimental or controversial treatments. By all means, leverage the abundance of free content on the web. The beauty of the web is that you can easily link to quality resources from your page - just make sure you have the appropriate permission to do so. Make good use of the opportunities that the web affords; animations and videos are particularly informative, and are media that don't translate to a simple pamphlet. Finally, make sure that your patient education section is easy to find from your home page, well-organized, and easy to navigate.

3) Get social. One of the best ways to help patients understand their condition and the benefits (and potential downsides) of a particular treatment is to connect them with patients who have gone before them. Medical device companies are beginning to understand the importance of developing patient communities - one of the best examples is Nuvasive's Better Way Back program that enlists "patient ambassadors" to help set expectations and soothe nerves of new patients. By putting new patients in touch with veteran patients, you are giving them the opportunity to understand the condition and treatments on a very personal level, free from medical jargon and any pressure that you and or staff may unintentionally impart. They may feel more comfortable asking basic questions about things like anesthesia and recovery, helping them to enter into any therapy with realistic expectations, thus improving the chances of a satisfactory outcome. Patient networking can be as simple as maintaining a phone list of patients that don't mind "mentoring" other patients, or as complex as establishing message boards on your website. Get creative!

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