Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

How to Make Abstract Concepts Concrete

Infectious disease physician Amash Adalja, MD, often uses car analogies to concretize abstract concepts for his patients.


To explain complex subjects to patients, you take an abstract concept and concretize it. This is important for patient counseling, and as a method to check your own knowledge.

When explaining complex scientific concepts to patients there are three techniques I find useful. In essence, the process is to take an abstract concept and concretize it. This process is important for more than just patient counseling, but also as method to check one’s own knowledge. Concretization can be used to determine whether one really possesses knowledge or just floating notions that one never took the time to fully integrate into their sum of knowledge. Below are several principles I try to use:


1.) Find out the patient’s baseline state of knowledge.

It is important to know who your patient is and how familiar they are with medical or scientific knowledge. For example, explaining a diagnosis to a high school biology teacher may be very different than explaining it to an airline pilot.


2.) Use analogies.

Patients have a lot of knowledge, just not about medical diagnoses. Use familiar analogies from everyday life (e.g. automobiles, war (I am an infectious disease physician)) to concretize complex concepts.


3.) Have the patient explain the diagnoses or concept in their own words.

Doing this will help you understand where the patient’s knowledge gaps are and address them in a targeted fashion, without making the patient feel that you aren’t recognizing specifically where their knowledge gap lies.


Using these three techniques will help your patient understand a complicated subject, as well as contribute to creating a trusting doctor-patient relationship.