I recently visited my doctor to ask for a refill on a medication I’ve taken since 1999.
After six more days, five more calls, and a second visit, it ended with me stopping a nurse mid-sentence.
“No. Enough. You will stop guessing. You will check my chart to confirm that what you say happened, did not. You will call the pharmacy to approve this refill.”
You might be a health communicator if, like me, you’d devote serious mental energy determining how one request devolved into a declaration of war.
Let’s use my bad day for good.
Here are three scenarios, including my own, that health communicators might want to role-play with clients.
Scenario: Patient TNT requests a prescription refill. Despite multiple calls and visits, the refill is never approved. Patient arrives at the office demanding action.
Focus: We know stress impacts health and how well patients follow through with a treatment plan. The goal? Reduce patient stress and address the request.
Skill development: Acknowledging feelings, asking open-ended questions, active listening.
Practice executing the first two with direct statements: “This hasn’t gone well for you. Tell me what happened.” Then fine tune active listening behavior—looking patients in the eye, leaning toward the patient, nodding acknowledgement, etc.
Delivering bad news
Scenario: Patient Q has stage four colon cancer. He and his wife have arrived to hear the news.
Research: A small study on how cancer patients reacted to news of their diagnoses found that most remembered the event while considering everything from initial contact with the health practice to end of treatment, rather than the actual news itself.
Focus: The time for clinicians to prepare a patient for life-changing news isn’t the day before it’s delivered. Help clinicians develop a culture that facilitates building good relationships from the start.
Skill development: Preparation
Clinicians will likely know the SPIKES protocol for sharing difficult diagnoses. Also, discuss the logistics of the meeting, including which team members to include. Consider inviting those who have good relationships with the patient and will help with treatment.
Empowering patients to become educated about health
Scenario: Patient ABC has a chronic condition and spends lots of time researching it online.
Research: A study from the Netherlands suggested that, as people rely more on the Internet for health information, online information could replace face-to-face consultations and harm doctor-patient relationships, but also supplement forms of care and improve patient participation.
Focus: In the age of patient-centered care, clinicians are uniquely positioned to guide patients to both the right treatment and the right resources.
Skill development: Common touch
Encourage clients to develop online resource lists for their patients—sites the clinicians enjoy, as well as sites that speak to different health literacy levels. Then encourage them to ask patients to suggest other good resources.
You might jumpstart your own work with clients by sharing this Wall Street Journal article. It has great advice on how to relate to patients.
Luciana Chavez is a journalist and health literacy advocate who can spot a communication breakdown at 20 paces. She has a B.A. from UCLA and an M.S. in Health Communication from Boston University.