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10 Errors Doctors Make When Communicating with Patients

Is YOUR doctor failing to get the right message across to you?

Written by The Institute for Healthcare Advancement

Pointing to the increasing cost — as much as $236 billion in unnecessary health care expenses annually due to the inability of patients to understand what medical providers are communicating to them — the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA) has created a new list of the ten most common errors providers make when communicating with patients.

"To help Americans use our health care resources more effectively, providers must communicate clearly to their patients, including the nearly one in two adults with low reading skills," said Gloria Mayer, R.N., Ed.D., president and CEO of the La Habra, Calif.-based IHA. "Instead of using medical-speak we need to write medical materials at the 3rd to 5th grade reading level."

Dr. Mayer reasons that by doing so, the country would be able to decrease the incidence of negative medical outcomes, unnecessary extra visits to the physician and crowded hospital emergency rooms."

As a guide for both healthcare professionals and consumers, IHA has formulated the following 2008 list.

10 Most Common Errors Medical Professionals Make When Communicating with Their Patients

    1. Creating prescription drug instructions that are written at 11th grade reading level or higher, rather than 5th grade reading, the level at which the majority of the country's population reads

    2. Communicating in medical jargon when it's not necessary. For instance, using terms like "otitis media" and "myocardial infarction" instead of "ear ache" and "heart attack" when informing patients of their condition unnecessarily complicates clear communication

    3. Sending patients to the Internet as a means of better explaining instructions and follow-up care. This is a problem when medical professionals may be sending patients to sites that provide information that is not in agreement with their advice, or when it is not clear the patient has access to the Internet

    4. Handing out reading material that is printed in a font size too small for the patient — particularly seniors, the country's largest patient population — to read. Type should be at least 12 point with adequate leading (space between lines)

    5. Not using simple visuals for medical instruction which can enhance patient understanding. Graphics should demonstrate and explain concepts in the text, and should never be abstract or for ornamental purposes only

    6. Not recognizing that a patient's response of "yes" or a simple nod might mean the patient is merely being polite but actually does not understand what they have just been told. Providers should ask patients to explain to them in their own words, or "teach back," the concepts just discussed, so the provider is certain the patient understands

    7. Failing to demonstrate cultural awareness and sensitivity in patient encounters. Many cultures have different norms than those of the provider, and these norms should be honored wherever possible.

    8. Talking too quickly to the patient and not allowing time for the patient to ask questions in response

    9. Not providing medical information in the patient's first language

    10. Not taking time to explain the meaning of prescription bottle labels such as "TAKE WITH FOOD." Studies show that even simple labels such as this, written at a 1stor 2nd grade reading level, are not understood universally as people have stuffed pills into solid foods and then eaten the food without liquid.

The Institute for Healthcare Advancement is a La Habra-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering people to better health. The Institute is nationally recognized for its efforts in health literacy and provides healthcare information through its various publishing efforts, the Internet, and its renowned local and national education programs. Today, its What to Do for Health self help health book series written at a 3rd to 5th grade reading level, including its groundbreaking What to Do When Your Child Gets Sick, has sold more than 2 million copies. For more information, please go to, or call toll-free (800) 434-4633.
Article Reviewed: January 1, 2016
Copyright © 2015 Healthy Magazine

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