Although she tried fervently to understand what the doctor was telling her, Jane Doe was quickly overwhelmed by the information presented to her. She understood the word cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation, survival rate. She knew the words individually, but strung together, they now had little meaning. She’s shaken out of her fog by the sound of her name. It’s the doctor. He wants to know if she has questions. Of course she does. But she has no idea what they are or how to ask.
Jane Doe is not a unique case. Jane Doe sits in doctor’s offices, fills out forms in waiting rooms, and picks up her medication from the pharmacy. Jane Doe is your mom, your sister, your daughter, and maybe one day she’ll be you—a patient, full of fear facing a doctor or other health care professional short on time (and in the worst of situations, short on patience).
And it happens—doctors become patients all the time. The Cleveland Clinic recently produced a video that shows what happens when a health care worker becomes a patient. Not surprisingly, many of the health care providers in the video did not feel that they were treated with much empathy. The lesson learned through the video is that after being patients, the providers now have more understanding, patience, and yes, empathy toward their patients.
Recognizing the importance of putting patients first and helping them become more active in their health care, organizations like the Patient Advocate Foundation and the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) work diligently to give patients a voice and help them navigate what is often a complex and confusing health care system. But all too often, not only do questions go unanswered, they go unasked.
That’s why the NPSF established the Ask Me 3 program. The program encourages patients to ask their health care provider the following three questions:
- What is my main problem?
- What do I need to do?
- Why is it important for me to do this?
According to the NPSF, when people understand health instructions, they tend to be more compliant with their medical care and may even heal or get well sooner.
At the end of the day, many providers simply must try harder to exhibit empathy (that is, empathy that is genuine and not part of a learned script as part of medical school). And I think that starts with remembering that patients are people, not tasks. We must also remember that words are powerful. This is something that health communicators already know, but it bears repeating. Using the right words at the right time can make a real difference in a patient’s experience. But we have to remember that the same amount of care we give to written words must also be applied to spoken words.
For more on care giver empathy, watch the Cleveland Clinic’s What if you could see people’s thoughts and feelings, produced last year.