“Do you understand what I just told you?”
Hospitalists who are experts on communicating with patients say that this kind of simple, yes/no question can engender all sorts of confusion. This kind of query often results in unrealistic discharge plans, failed post-discharge treatments, and unnecessary rehospitalizations. And they happen all the time in hospitals across the country.
“Yes/no questions, unless they are very concrete—such as ‘Do you have a headache?’—have little relation to assessing a patient’s understanding of essential healthcare information,” says Jeffrey Greenwald, MD, SFHM, hospitalist and educator at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Many times, he adds, patients say “yes” just to please the doctor or nurse, or to avoid looking ignorant.
A better approach to patient-provider communication, one that successfully addresses communication gaps, is teach-back, a strategy in which providers ask patients to repeat (or “teach back”), in their own words, what they have just learned about their medical condition, treatments, and self-care. For example, a physician using the teach-back method could ask, “Mr. Smith, can you tell me why you are in the hospital?”
The approach is an integral part of SHM’s Project BOOST (Better Outcomes for Older Adults through Safer Transitions) care-transitions quality initiative, says Dr. Greenwald, a BOOST coinvestigator. But too often, hospitalists fail to embrace the mandate of effective communication, he says, leaving responsibility to clarify the patient’s understanding to nurses and other members of the care team.
“Having taught this skill all over the country, I continue to find members of my own profession who feel that it is not their job to assess if patients understand self-care and medication instructions. To me, there’s no question that physicians have a role to play as teachers. We educate patients, whether we think we do or not,” Dr. Greenwald says, adding that some hospitalists do so with greater effectiveness than others.
In an era of accountable-care organizations, patient-centered care, and shared decision-making, hospitalists need to provide their patients the same core messages as the rest of the care team does. According to a recent report by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Center for Vulnerable Populations at San Francisco General Hospital, 77 million Americans have difficulty understanding even basic healthcare information.1
In addition to widespread language barriers, the Institute of Medicine in a 2004 report concluded that 90 million U.S. adults have literacy skills that test below the high-school level.2 As most hospitalists know, many inpatients go to great lengths to mask these limitations—appearing knowledgeable while failing to grasp essential health concepts. Medical jargon, acronyms, and instructions can be confusing, even for patients with a high level of education.
“First and foremost, we have to be able to communicate with our patients—to make sure that we understand their goals and that they understand our approach to treatment and the therapeutic goals we are proposing,” Dr. Greenwald says. “This process also helps to achieve true informed consent. We want to ensure that their questions are being answered, and that the options we are discussing are in line with their goals of care so that they are more likely to actually undertake them when they go home. And if they can’t, we need to know that in advance, so that we can intervene in other ways.”
Embracing the Method
One health system that has embraced teach-back as a patient-education strategy is the Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN), a 988-bed, three-hospital system based in Allentown, Pa. In an HM12 workshop, the Lehigh Valley team explained how its teach-back initiative grew out of quality initiatives to target patient flow and readmissions. Lehigh joined an Institute for Healthcare Improvement quality collaborative, implemented “Lean” quality-improvement (QI) methodologies, and adopted a patient-coaching program.3