Want a great patient experience? Watch your language.

Posted by Kristin Baird on February 4th, 2013 • No Comments »

It’s no secret that communication is at the core of a great patient experience. Patients and families want to feel heard, valued, and engaged in their care in a meaningful way. They want to understand their condition and treatment as well as what is happening next. The words we choose in each encounter along with the delivery of key messages make all the difference in the world regarding how patients feel about their experiences. But all too often, healthcare professionals fall into the jargon trap that leaves patients feeling baffled about information and too embarrassed to ask for clarification, and I’m not just talking about medical abbreviations.

I was recently watching a fascinating newscast about one organization’s innovations in breast cancer treatment. The physician being interviewed was asked to describe the unique approach her organization is taking. Here was her moment to tell the world why her organization is on the cutting edge of care and why area women should place their trust in her and the organization. The first thing out of her mouth was, “We take a multi-disciplinary approach.” Good for her, but what does that mean to the average consumer? Is she describing a group of disciplinarians? Of course not, but her terminology did nothing to engage the average viewer. In fact, I was watching the newscast with someone who happens to have two masters’ degrees, and I asked him, “What does the term ‘multi-disciplinary’ mean to you?” He said, “Nothing good. I’m picturing a group of disciplinarians like hall monitors or teachers with rulers.” Case in point.

Vocabulary is defined as the set of words within a language that are familiar to a person within that language. There has been lots of research on the subject of health literacy and great strides made in the content of the written word, particularly with discharge instructions. But the written word in the form of handouts or flyers can’t take the place of the opportunities to connect during conversations.

During one of our mystery shopping studies, a patient called the imaging department to ask for clarification about prepping for her exam. The caller stated that she was told to be NPO and didn’t know what that meant. The imaging tech taking the call scoffed and impatiently replied, “It means ‘NPO.’” This of course was not helpful. In fact, the patient described feeling stupid, so she hung up and asked the pharmacist who kindly told her not to eat after 8:00 p.m. on the evening of her prep.

Language is so important in how we connect with others, and yet it is so engrained that we miss opportunities to filter or translate terms that patients will understand. In one of our training sessions, we teach participants to modify language to be more patient-centered. We teach participants “words that wound, words that work, and words that wow.” This works to avoid over-used jargon but also helps in re-phrasing common expressions that may erode patient trust. The bottom line in making changes is to first become more aware of the words you choose and then make a conscious effort to deliver an intentional message. But it all starts with a sincere desire to communicate.

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Baird Consulting


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