Clinicians—like journalists— must communicate in an open and straightforward manner.
Connecting with Patients | June 10, 2020 | 2 min read
By Heather Kagan, MD, Johns Hopkins Medicine
During the month of April, at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, I was a full-time medical journalist at ABC News, a sabbatical from my day job as an internal medicine resident at Hopkins. I interviewed experts for digital articles, wrote stories on tight deadlines, created medical content for national television, and collaborated with journalists across the company.
Working at ABC made me a better doctor. Here’s how:
1. Simple and relatable messaging is imperative.
For a “World News Tonight” segment, I was tasked with explaining how an experimental drug treated COVID-19. I likened the drug to a “wrong key inserted in a lock, which would halt the virus machinery.” Metaphors are powerful tools that translate scientific information into language that is accessible to our patients.
2. Avoid “forbidden words” when talking to patients and families.
My editor had a list of medical jargon to avoid in all drafts, including outcomes, indicated, clinical, risk factors, comorbidities, and presenting. It’s easy to forget how meaningless this language is to anyone without a clinical background.
3. A unilateral narrative is an incomplete narrative.
While writing an article about the nation’s largest health systems’ financial hardships during the pandemic, I struggled to find hospital representatives willing to speak on the sensitive topic. Still, the story wasn’t ready until multiple perspectives were incorporated. A story relying on a single source is opinion content, not news reporting. In clinical practice, input from patients’ family and friends is critical.
4. Sharing information is an obligation.
My first assignment at ABC was on a complicated science topic—prediction models of coronavirus death tolls. I hesitated to write the article, worrying that it could be misconstrued. My editor took the time to explain a tenet of journalism to m—choosing not to report on information because you think people won’t understand it is unethical. The onus was on me to communicate effectively so that the information could be easily digested. Similarly, educating patients on complex diseases and engaging in shared decision making are duties that aren’t optional.
5. Getting someone’s name right is important.
When interviewing sources for stories, asking for their preferred title in print is required. If a story runs and the source is dissatisfied with their title, the story gets corrected. Now, I always ask patients, “how would you like to be called?” Creating a space where people choose how to represent themselves conveys respect and strengthens the doctor-patient relationship.
6. Remember who you serve.
Many sources grew upset when they read the final versions of the articles I interviewed them for. They often felt like their message wasn’t fully captured in the exact framework they wanted. But good reporting serves its audience, not its sources. In medicine, patient-centered care may mean dissatisfying other parties, but that can’t thwart the mission.
Journalism has taught me effective communication, emphasized the importance of diverse perspectives, and refocused me on how to stay patient-centered. I am incredibly grateful for its countless impactful lessons on how to be a better clinician.
The author would like to thank Dr. Margaret Chisolm for her help with this piece.