Caring for patients through the COVID crisis, I improved my communication. It reminded me how we all need to distill and convey complex ideas in a straightforward way.
“Thank you for being the first doctor who explained that to me in a way that I can understand.” This sentence, relayed to me by a patient or loved one, is among the highest compliments I’ve ever received. Effectively communicating complex medical problems to patients is tough. It’s too easy to talk at patients, to speak over them, and to assume that they understood what we just said, even when they likely did not.
Making sure that we’re on the same page as patients regarding their health, fosters a trusting patient-clinician relationship that is critical to navigating our future together. This is one of the most important parts of our jobs, being teachers. Every single school day teachers around the world take complex material and communicate it so that their students can grasp it, adding more complexity as the learner’s own knowledge deepens. So it is between physicians and patients.
Communicating with patients (or anyone) in a way that they understand on their level, requires a combination of deep knowledge of the problem and the ability to share it in succinct manner. It’s relaying facts and complex biomedical concepts in a simple way. It is an art form. As I have said many times to learners and patients alike, if I cannot communicate something complex to you in a way that you understand, then I do not understand as well as I should.
The COVID-19 pandemic sharpened my skills in this regard and made me a better communicator, and thus, doctor. As an infectious disease specialist, I was sought after by journalists, business leaders, school administrators, and others, to address uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I got a lot of practice in interviews, town halls, and webinars, fielding difficult questions related to the diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19. I honed skills in delivering simple messages, speaking directly to my audience instead of at them, and meeting people where they were. I came to understand that my audience was populated by folks who were confused, frightened, or angry, and looking for simple answers to complex questions. I also had to get comfortable with uncertainty myself, and with the idea that saying, “I don’t know,” was ok.
This repeated communications practice in the face of a dramatic and rapidly changing public health crisis, helped me at the bedside caring for patients afflicted by problems other than SARS-CoV-2 infection. I now really enjoy the practice of trying to simplify the complex without losing meaning or magnitude. And I love it even more when I can tell the practice has paid off, when a patient or one of their companions brightens with the light of understanding.
Here are four ideas to help communicate complex ideas effectively:
1. Avoid medical jargon.
This is harder than you might imagine since we’re so accustomed to certain commonly used words and phrases. For example, I say “skin infection” rather than “cellulitis,” and “swelling” rather than “edema.”
2. Ask patients and their companions if what you just said made sense, and if there was anything that was even just a little bit confusing.
I will sometimes stop after only one or two sentences and ask, “Does that make sense?”
3. Be brief.
Practice keeping your comments succinct. Long answers risk being confusing, addressing more than one topic at a time, and covering too much ground. Give patients a chance to reflect and respond to each point independently.
4. Observe others and critique yourself.
Listen to other peoples’ communications with patients. This could be anyone from learners to seasoned staff and physicians. What did you like about their approach? What might you do differently in that same situation? Then critique yourself and seek feedback from others. Ask others, “How did that go? Are there ways I could be more concise? Did they seem to understand what I said?”
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.