Health communication is often a challenge. Patients and caregivers might have new terms to learn, numbers to understand, and hard choices to make. Healthcare providers not only need to prioritize what to communicate but also quickly figure out how. When a patient has mild memory loss or other cognitive challenge, communication that was already difficult now may be even harder. Here are some tips to help:
- Wonder why that person seems to be having memory problems. Memory loss and cognitive problems can be ongoing and worsening such as with forms of dementia. Or they might be temporary perhaps due to medication, illness, or anxiety. When it seems that the other person is having extra difficulty communicating, take time to assess what is happening and why.
- Connect new pieces of information to old. It is easier to remember new information when linked to something familiar. One way to help is by using a metaphor or analogy. For instance, you might explain an aneurysm by comparing it to a leaking garden hose. But that only is effective when the other person is familiar with using a hose to water the garden.
- Chunk information. Many people can hold on to only about 3-5 new pieces of information at a time. You can help them better remember by “chunking” information into shorter segments. For instance, patients are more likely to succeed at remembering which high-fiber foods to eat if they think in terms of breakfast foods, dinner foods, and snacks rather than trying to remember all items in a single list.
- Use teach-back to confirm understanding. Teach-back is a technique in which patients are asked to explain what they’ve just heard. It helps by revisiting key concepts throughout appointments and again at the end. This provides an opportunity to clarify issues the patient may have missed, misunderstood, found confusing, or forgotten.
- Write down important information. Most people can remember spoken information better when they have a written or audio reminder. Ideally patients will write notes during their appointments or even record these conversations on a phone (with the provider’s permission, of course). But that doesn’t always happen. You can help by giving the patient a brief written summary of topics discussed. But please write it in a way that is easy for the other person to understand.
To Learn More:
- This How-To Tip is adapted from “Know Your Audience: Emotions and Cognition,” a chapter in Helen Osborne’s award-winning book, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition (updated 2018).
- “Elderspeak (HLOL #182),” a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Anna I Corwin, PhD.
- “Older Adults, Brain Changes, and Health Understanding (HLOL #163),” a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Mark Hochhauser, PhD.
- “Teach-back (HLOL #129),” a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Dean Schillinger, MD.