The more I hear from family and friends about medical mishaps, the more convinced I become that patients need yet another skill—the ability to independently problem solve what to do when the unplanned or unfamiliar happens.
Here are my musings about how health professionals can help patients problem solve:
- Appreciate that patients will have “oops” moments. Perhaps a patient forgets to take a dose of her medicine. And when she remembers, she figures it’s best to take a double dose. But that figuring may not be correct. You can help by talking ahead of time about what to do in such situations. Write down these instructions, too. If you anticipate that patients may forget certain tasks, you might suggest setting an alarm or using another type of reminder. Help patients anticipate actions to take after an “oops” moment by making clear who to call or where to go should this happen.
- Help patients know the difference between routine and serious. A while ago I had shoulder surgery. Everything was unfamiliar since I had never had surgery before. The post-operative discharge instructions had lots of important information but I had no frame of reference to judge whether my symptoms were routine or serious. You can help by making clear what words like “excessive” mean. And of course, tell patients what to do if they experience such symptoms.
- Guide patients toward credible resources. Patients constantly try to figure out on their own what to do. For instance, “Is this symptom so bad that I should go to the emergency room?” Or, “My cousin (friend, coworker, or a total stranger) had the same problem and told me that it’s good to ________. Is that true?” Patients today are often overwhelmed by health information. Help them make sense of all this by providing a list of resources that offer up-to-date, unbiased, evidence-based, patient-friendly health information.
More ways to learn:
“A Patient’s Perspective about Health Communication.” Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Rosalind Joffe who has been living with chronic illness for more than 35 years.