Use the Teach-Back Method to Confirm Patient Understanding


Editor’s note: “Everything We Say and Do” is an informational series developed by SHM’s Patient Experience Committee to provide readers with thoughtful and actionable communication tactics that have great potential to positively impact patients’ experience of care. Each article will focus on how the contributor applies one or more of the “key communication” tactics in practice to maintain provider accountability for “everything we say and do that affects our patients’ thoughts, feelings, and well-being.”

View a chart outlining key communication tactics

What I Say and Do

Trina E. Dorrah, MD, MPH

Trina E. Dorrah, MD, MPH

I use the teach-back method to confirm my patients’ understanding.

Why I Do It

Teach-back allows me to address my patients’ uncertainty about the plan and clarify any misunderstandings.

As doctors, one of our most important jobs is explaining in ways our patients understand. It doesn’t matter how brilliant our treatment plan is if our patients do not understand it. We all want to feel like we’re making a difference in our patients’ lives. Yet it’s hard for our patients to do what we recommend if they don’t understand.

Unfortunately, many patients are too embarrassed to ask questions, or they simply do not know what to ask. Patients will also say they understand everything even when they do not because they fear appearing uneducated.

This is why the teach-back method is so valuable. The teach-back method allows you to better assess your patients’ understanding of their medical problems. It allows you to uncover and clarify any misunderstandings your patients may have about the plan. It also helps you to engage in a more collaborative relationship with your patients.

How I Do It

Teach-back helps me to test my effectiveness as a teacher by allowing me to assess whether my patient understands; if not, I explain in a different way.

One of the common mistakes clinicians make when assessing for understanding is asking, “Do you have any questions?” or “Does this make sense?” The problem with these questions is that they are closed-ended. The only responses are yes or no. Your patients may say they understand even when they do not. In reality, it does not matter how brilliant your treatment plans are if patients do not follow them because they do not understand.

Teach-back encourages the doctor to check for understanding by using open-ended instead of closed-ended questions.

Example one: “This is a new diagnosis for you, so I want to make sure you understand. Will you tell me in your own words what congestive heart failure is?”

Example two: “I want to make sure I explained this clearly. I know your daughter helps you manage your health. What will you tell her about the changes we made to your blood pressure medication?”

Teach-back steps:

  1. I explain the concept to my patients, avoiding medical jargon.
  2. I assess my patients’ understanding by asking them to explain the concept in their own words.
  3. I clarify anything my patients did not understand and reassess their understanding.
  4. If my patients still do not understand, I find a new way to explain the concept.
  5. I repeat the process of explaining and assessing for understanding until my patients are able to accurately state their understanding.

There are a few key things to remember as you perform teach-back. The first is to ensure you use a caring tone when speaking with your patients. Next, if you have several concepts you want to teach, break it into small pieces. Use teach-back for the first concept before moving on to the next. Finally, one of the most common questions I get from other doctors about teach-back is how to assess patients’ understanding without sounding condescending. I address this by making it about me and my effectiveness as a teacher. I tell my patients it is my responsibility to explain things in a way they understand, so if they do not, I will explain it in a different way. When I frame it this way, patients are not offended by my asking them to perform teach-back because they realize I’m doing it as a test of my effectiveness as a teacher.

Example: “Mr. Johnson, as your doctor, one of my top priorities is to ensure I’m explaining things in a way you understand. I want to make sure my instructions about how to take your new medication are clear. Would you mind telling me in your own words how you will take this new medication?”

Now that you know what teach-back is and understand how helpful it can be, start incorporating it into your practice. Think about a few concepts that you teach again and again, such as disease management, medication changes, and self-care instructions. Next, think about how you could use teach-back in these scenarios. Practice what you will say when you ask patients to engage in teach-back. Finally, commit to using teach-back with your next few patients. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.

For more information on teach-back, visit

Dr. Dorrah is regional medical director for quality and the patient experience, Baylor Scott & White Health, Round Rock, Texas.

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