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Communicating More Clearly with Patients

There’s only so much you can do in a typical office visit. Use these tips to help you make the most of each patient encounter. They'll help you can get your message across in a clear, understandable way. You can apply most of these tips to both spoken and written communication with patients.

Man talking to healthcare provider in exam room.

Keep content simple

  • Health literacy level. Up to 90 million Americans have limited literacy and numerical skills. And you can’t always tell which patients those are. Even well-educated people may misunderstand something when they're stressed or ill. Speak with all patients using simple language. Keep words and sentences short. Don't use confusing or overwhelming medical jargon. Create an environment where patients feel comfortable asking questions. And where they feel comfortable telling you when they don't understand something.

  • English proficiency. Some patients may not understand English well. Provide them with language assistance services at all points of contact. This may include bilingual staff and interpreter services. For healthcare organizations receiving federal funds, providing these language services is mandated by the federal government. They must be provided to the patient for free, at all hours of operation. Don't use family members and strangers as interpreters or translators. Preserve your patients' confidentiality and comfort.

  • Key concepts. Highlight key concepts. And don’t be afraid to repeat them. Provide printed materials that support the concepts you want patients to learn. Such materials give consistent information. And patients and families can refer to them at home. Printed materials can also include links to online materials. Make sure online resources and smartphone apps work, are evidenced-based, and meet required literacy levels.

  • Clear focus and goals. Focus on 1 achievable goal or behavior change for each patient visit. Keep this main goal in mind. And keep it central in your communication. Always ask for the patient's feedback. That way you can make adjustments.

  • Small, logical steps. Break down any new behaviors or instructions—such as how to do a new back exercise—into simple, logical steps. Use pictures whenever possible.

  • Interactivity. People learn best when they feel personally involved. If possible, let the patient show you a new skill they've learned. Perhaps your office can organize patient support groups. This allows patients to share their successes and challenges. For conditions such as chronic illnesses, think about having support groups for patients and for family members.

Use visuals

  • Convey key messages. Drawings, visuals, and anecdotes can reinforce key content you want a patient to remember. Illustrations help put abstract medical information into the context of a person’s real life.

  • Give clear instructions. Some people learn visually. Pictures showing step-by-step instructions are very helpful. For instance, pictures that show how to inject insulin.

  • Bridge language barriers. Visuals reach patients whose cultural realities are different from your own. For instance, verbal examples of low-fat foods may not be understood. But pictures of these foods can be. Any videos should be closed-captioned for hearing-impaired patients.

  • Motivate patients. Seeing positive images of other people making a behavior change can boost motivation. And seeing the results of a successful medical procedure can reduce fear or worry.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Robert Hurd MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2022
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.