How to speak your patients’ language for clearer communication

Most patients, regardless of health literacy level, prefer the use of plain and simple language when you communicate with them about their medical conditions.


Aniruddha Malpani, MD“Plain language is easy for patients to read, but sometimes you have to work hard in order to write simply.”
-Aniruddha Malpani, MD, medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India


Physicians must become bilingual, not in the sense of being able to speak another language, but being able to[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]…

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] use words that patients can understand. Using words such as bleeding instead of hemorrhage, swelling for edema, heart attack for myocardial infarction, and cancer for carcinoma goes a long way to improving patient understanding.

The entire medical team—nurses, medical assistants, and receptionists—can play important roles in helping patients gain greater understanding if you train them to use plain language, too.
Patients must do their part as well, to understand their medical conditions and to be partners in their own healthcare. I ask my patients to do their homework before coming to their appointments, so that they are ready “to teach and to learn.”

Teach your patients to always ask these 3 questions each time that they talk to a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about a newly diagnosed medical condition or disease:

Key Point: Using plain, simple language with your patients rather than medical jargon will increase the likelihood that they will understand and retain what you tell them. This type of communication will help patients: find what they need; understand what they find; and use what they find.
  • What is my main problem?
  • What do I need to do?
  • Why is it important for me to do this?

If we want to help our patients, we need to create materials that are easy for them to understand. This is where plain language comes in. Plain language is simply communication that your audience can understand the first time that they read or hear it.

Remember author George Orwell’s advice:

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Plain language is easy for patients to read, but sometimes you have to work hard in order to write simply. As novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne once said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

It’s worth noting that plain language is NOT about “dumbing things down.” It’s a way of speaking and writing that helps people:

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find
  • use what they find.

Plain language is friendly and conversational and focuses on emphasizing important points first. When you are talking or writing simply, use an active, personal voice (e.g., use “you should” rather than “one should”). And of course, be sure to use short sentences and common, everyday words, instead of medical jargon.

Conversational language vs medical jargon is a better way to encourage a dialogue with your patients, because they will be more likely to remain silent and hide the fact they do not understand what you are saying if you use words they are not familiar with.

Some additional examples of preferred plain language for common medical terms are:

  • analgesic=pain killer
  • contraception=birth control
  • hypertension=high blood pressure
  • lipids=fats in the blood
  • monitor=keep an eye on
  • oral=by mouth.

Lots of doctors give their patients educational handouts and brochures and feel that they have done their job to educate patients. The problem with this approach with a subsequent dialogue with the patient is that the written word is not interactive. It cannot:

  • answer questions when the patient asks them
  • provide alternate ways of explaining things
  • always be understood by the reader if the reading level of the educational materials is too high.

Many doctors feel that they have excellent bedside manners and communicate well with their patients, so they do not need to worry about these fundamentals. However, it’s always worth revisiting the communication protocols within your practice to see if any enhancements can be made. As playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The main problem with communication is the assumption that it has occurred.”

Aniruddha Malpani, MD Dr. Malpani is medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India, medical director of the HELP-Health Education Library for People, and author of a physician and patient education blog. He is an angel investor in Plus 91, which offers customized Web sites for doctors.

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This entry was posted in Business of Medicine, Practice Management and tagged , , , , , . Volume: .

4 Comments

  1. Posted Mar 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Excellent article. And a host of practical tips too.
    Doctors need to stop hiding behind jargon to sidestep patient’s concerns. We need to empower patients with Information so that they can shoulder their responsibility for their own health.
    And your HELP Initiative is a big step in that direction. Thank you.

  2. Sofiya Rawoot
    Posted Apr 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Sir, Medical Colleges do not teach us how to communicate with patients, so I think now is the right time to give a thought for this topic and include communication and Information technology like subjects in our curriculum.
    Thanks Sir for the wonderful article.

  3. VALLURI RAMARAO
    Posted Nov 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Well said. Bilingual and plain language. Don’t use technical words.
    Many examples are quoted. This will be of great use for upcoming practitioners
    Really good article in present day situation where
    Junior doctors to be guided .

  4. Gudidevuni Jamuna Devi
    Posted Nov 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Excellent article
    I agree with Sofia
    And this article helpful to all the practitioners

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