From the Society

Everything We Say and Do: Use familiar terminology to allay patients’ fears


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.”

What I say and do

I clearly explain diagnoses and treatment plans in plain terms.

Why I do it

We hear repeatedly from patients and families that a major source of their fear comes from “not knowing.” Fear of the unknown. If our patients and their families do not understand the message we are trying to communicate, these fears will be realized. It is our responsibility to explain their medical situation(s) to them in plain terms that they can comprehend, so as to allay those fears and enable them to become active, informed participants in their care.

Dr. Larry Sharp

Dr. Larry Sharp

How I do it

I start by reminding myself that I want to treat each patient as I would want a member of my own family to be treated. No one else in my family is in the medical field, so this means I must avoid medical terminology and use more familiar, everyday phrases. For example, I say “heart doctor” or “lung doctor” instead of “cardiologist” or “pulmonologist.” I also prefer “sonogram” to “ultrasound” because most people have heard that term in relation to a pregnancy. Even “EEG” and “EKG” need more plain descriptions.

I also try to use common, relatable analogies when explaining diseases. My favorite is to describe COPD (or any restrictive lung disease) like an old, hard sponge as compared with normal lungs, which are like a new, soft sponge.

I use the Teach-Back Method (which has already been well-discussed in this column by Dr. Trina Dorrah) to check for comprehension. If there are still issues with my message not being received as I had hoped, then I try again to find the terminology or an analogy that will connect with that patient.

Hopefully, using familiar, relatable language in this manner gives my patients and their families a better understanding of their diagnoses and care plans, quells their fears, and enhances their experience.

Dr. Sharp is a chief hospitalist with Sound Physicians at UF Health in Jacksonville, Fla., and a member of SHM's Patient Experience Committee.

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