How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Helping Patients Problem-Solve

Jul 1, 2021

The more stories I hear from family and friends about medical mishaps, the more I become convinced that patients need yet another skill–the ability to independently figure out what to do in unexpected or unfamiliar situations. Here are my musings about how 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, then decides it best to take twice the amount. Health professionals can help by talking with patients ahead of time about what to do in such situations. Include this in your written instructions, too. If you anticipate that patients will have trouble remembering to do certain tasks at specific times, suggest helpful tools such setting their phone’s alarm. To problem-solve after an “oops” moment, instruct patients ahead of time about whom to contact or where to go should the unplanned occur.
  • Help patients know the difference between routine and serious. A while ago I had shoulder surgery. Everything was unfamiliar since I never had orthopedic surgery before. The post-operative discharge instructions had lots of important information. But I had no frame of reference to judge whether some symptoms were routine, or serious. You can help by making clear the meaning of words like, “excessive.” And of course, tell patients what to do should they experience such symptoms.
  • Guide patients toward credible resources. Patients constantly try to figure out what to do about health. For instance, “Is this symptom so bad that I need to go to the emergency room?” Or, “My cousin [or spouse, child, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or anyone else] had the same problem and told me that it’s good to do [what]. Is that true?” Patients today are bombarded with health information. It’s likely that only some of this information is accurate and relevant. Help patients make sense of what they hear and read by guiding them toward credible websites, hotlines, and other resources. Make it even easier by providing an up-to-date list of organizations that offer unbiased, evidence-based, and patient-friendly health information.

How do you help patients independently problem-solve? Please let me know at