How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Helping Patients Problem Solve

Nov 1, 2022

The more I hear from family and friends about medical mishaps, the more convinced I am that patients need yet another skill—the ability to independently problem solve what to do in unplanned or unfamiliar situations.

Some 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 medicine. And when she remembers, figures it’s best to take a double dose. But that may not be safe, or wise. You can help by talking ahead of time about what she might do in such situations. Write down this information, too. If you anticipate that patients may forget to do certain tasks on time, you might suggest they set an alarm or use a reminder device such as a pill box. Also help patients anticipate actions to take after any “oops” moment including who to call, where to go, or what to do.
  • Help patients know the difference between routine and serious. A while ago I had shoulder surgery. Everything was unfamiliar since I never had this type of surgery before. The post-operative discharge instructions included lots of important information, including severity of symptoms. But since this was all new to me, I had no frame of reference to judge whether mine were routine or serious. You can help by making clear what words like “excessive” mean. And of course, let patients know ahead of time what to do if they experience such symptoms.
  • Guide patients toward credible resources. Patients constantly try to independently figure out what to do. For instance, I’m feeling very sick. Should I call my doctor’s office even though they are closed? Or should I go to the hospital’s emergency room? Another example of trying to figure out what to do is self-care. Should I do the same as my friend’s friend who had a similar problem? How can I make sense of all the confusing information I’m finding online?  You can help by providing a list of up-to-date, unbiased, evidence-based, reader-friendly health resources.

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.

The chapter “Patient and Family Perspective” in Helen Osborne’s book, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways To Communicate Your Health Message, Third Edition includes even more strategies, ideas and suggestions for providers and patients.