Patient communication: Simplicity is best

In general, most doctors fall into 2 categories when it comes to patient communication. There is one group which tends to make everything extremely complicated. They use a lot of technical medical jargon, and often will end up mystifying patients by overcomplicating explanations of the disease process and treatment options. In contrast, the second group of doctors are the simplifiers, who get to the heart of the matter by focusing on communicating key information and stripping away all of the superfluous details.


Aniruddha Malpani, MD“A good doctor, like a good teacher, takes a top-down approach when talking to patients.”
-Aniruddha Malpani, MD, medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India


This second group of doctors tend to be able to communicate much more easily and effectively with patients. The information that they share tends to be “stickier”—patients remember the key messages because of their[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]…

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] simplicity and the memorable ways in which the doctors communicate them.

Key Point: When it comes to patient communication and education, the simpler your message and the more effectively it is communicated, the more “sticky” it will be with the patient. Patients who understand their diagnoses and treatment plans will be more compliant, which can improve outcomes and benefit both you and your patients.

Sometimes doctors unintentionally complicate matters because they have spent so many years studying medical jargon and talking with other doctors using that technical terminology. Like anything, it simply takes practice and go-to resources to ensure that you are communicating clearly and effectively with patients.

Some helpful tips include:

  • For common diseases and conditions that you diagnose in your medical practice, be sure to have patient education materials available for patients that explain everything in laypersons’ terms rather than in complex medical language. Many reliable sources exist for this type of information, and most of it is available free of charge on the Web. You can customize this information therapy as you see fit and provide it to patients. Patients also learn well with multimedia and interactive materials.
  • Ask patients to review the educational materials that you provide before you talk about their diagnosis and treatment options. That way, you have a strong starting point for explaining the information to them in person.
  • Be sure that patients know that it’s okay for them to interject with a question if what you are saying isn’t resonating with them or isn’t understandable. Use this feedback to tweak your “script” for educating patients about specific topics.
  • Encourage patients to follow up with you if they have any questions. If you see a pattern emerge with similar questions from multiple patients, you’ll know that you need to work on simplifying and strengthening your messaging in that specific area.

It’s not just doctors who have these different styles of communication. The 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin divided professionals into 2 groups—the lumpers and the splitters. The lumpers were the simplifiers, who would try to find common patterns and broad themes to unify what on the surface appeared to be different items. The splitters, on the other hand, would dig more deeply into the details and focus on amplifying the differences.

These complementary approaches both have important applications but should be applied with care in the appropriate situations. In a research setting, using a splitter’s approach is helpful because you need to differentiate in an effort find out what separates one patient from another. On the other hand, when providing clinical care, simplification is far more important, because otherwise patients can get very confused.

It’s important to remember, too, that every patient is different, and everyone has different learning styles. You should have basic messages and information that you communicate to all patients diagnosed with a certain condition or issue—and for patients who prefer to have additional detail, you can go even deeper.

A good doctor, like a good teacher, takes a top-down approach when talking to patients. You should start where your patients are in their knowledge base, and then provide progressively more information to the patient, so they can understand their diagnosis and treatment options. In the end, you will have more satisfied patients who will likely be more compliant with their treatment plans—which benefits the patients and your practice.

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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