Jargon-free doctor-patient communication: Ask Me 3

Todd Vandenbark

Health literacy logoBeginning in medical school, healthcare professionals are trained in medical jargon that serves as a shorthand for concise communication with colleagues and coworkers about patients they serve. Practically speaking, it is a “language” all its own that physicians (with 20 years of education) not only use, but assume patients understand as well. Yet the average patient does not have this level of education, and need health information provided at a lower level, anywhere from 8th grade on down. As one physician blogger noted:

Health care professionals must become “medically bilingual,” that is, learn to speak both medical jargon and plain language. I like to ask myself, “How would I explain this to my mother?”

When a physician is explaining her/his findings and recommendations, if the patient does not understand, he/she may not even ask for clarification out of fear of appearing ignorant. While medical schools are working to train doctors to speak using everyday language, patients can take some simple steps to avoid making this mistake: ask three simple questions:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

And if your physician answers in a way that is confusing or loaded with unintelligible jargon, stop her/him and ask for them to explain in simpler language.

The National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) created the Ask Me 3TM patient education program “to promote communication between health care providers and patients in order to improve health outcomes.” When patients clearly understand health information and instructions, they make fewer mistakes and can better manage their own healthcare. The NPSF offers patient brochures and other reference materials, and created this video to assist in improving patient-doctor communication.

While it is important that patients ask questions, and doctors answer using understandable language, it is also important to acknowledge that the current health system does not reward physicians for taking time to speak with patients. Regulation needs to be enacted or changed so that physicians can be reimbursed by health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and other plans for the time spent. It will likely save the system money in the long run as well.

What other steps can be taken to improve doctor-patient communication? Tell us about it!