EVERY VISIT with a health care professional is an opportunity for patients to find, understand, communicate, and evaluate important information to advance their health literacy and make informed decisions. In the first article of this series, we provided some tips about how to prepare for an appointment with a health care professional. A health care professional can be a partner and an educator to help people not only when they’re sick and need treatment, but also when they’re healthy and want to stay healthy through prevention.
Given that the average face-to-face visit between a doctor and a patient is fewer than 15 minutes, health care professionals often face demands to hurry patients along and get right to the “one most important reason” for the appointment. Listening may be sacrificed in the interest of time.
That’s why it makes sense for health care professionals to plan for each patient visit, just as patients need to plan ahead.
The Teach-Back Method — A Two-Way Street
The Teach-Back Method is an excellent way for health care professionals to be effective communicators. To use this method a health care professional can:
• Ask about your patient’s knowledge regarding health and their specific health care issue so that you can give the best information in the best manner. Remember, it’s not a test! Say, for example, “Tell me what you have heard about (whatever the topic is)?”
• Help correct any misunderstandings and give your patient correct, understandable, and actionable information.
• Ask your patient to Teach-Back what you have explained. Say, for example, “I want to be sure I explained everything clearly. Can you please explain it back to me so I can be sure I did a good job explaining this to you?” Or “Tell me, when you go back home, how will you tell your (spouse, friend, partner, child) about what we have talked about today?” Another effective Teach-Back question is “We’ve gone over a lot of information today. So tell me, please, what are some things that you might do differently now?”
• Ask your patient, “What questions do you have?” instead of “Have I answered all your questions?” – which can be difficult for a patient to answer because it may seem like a challenge to the health care professional’s skills.
By following the best practices of health literacy, including the Teach-Back Method, you can help patients find, understand, evaluate, communicate, and use health information to make informed decisions about their own health.
Here are some additional techniques that a health care professional may already be using to make the most of each patient visit:
• Introduce or re-introduce yourself to your patient as a “partner in your health and wellness,” or a “collaborator in living a healthy life.”
• Identify yourself as a resource for helping to identify healthy goals for your patient.
• Set the tone with body language by making your eye level the same as your patient’s and by not having a desk or other equipment, like a laptop computer, between you.
• Don’t interrupt your patient before he or she has a chance to get to what they feel is the real problem. Ask for more information, if needed, before moving to what you feel is the “main problem.” In one study, physicians listened for an average of only 23.1 seconds before “redirecting” the conversation — potentially missing out on important information.
• Come to agreement with your patient on at least one health goal during the visit. The goal should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Identify specific, concrete steps for your patient to take after the visit.
As a health care professional, you have the power to reach into the hearts and minds of the people you serve, to help them become active, informed, and prepared champions of their own health at each visit with you. You are the health care professional, but the people you serve are experts in their own lives.
If the health care professionals you see aren’t following the practices we’ve described, remind them. Show them this article. Remember, if your health care professional is not your partner, if you don’t feel empowered to speak, you can always ‘vote with your feet’ and find a health care professional who will become a partner with you in your own health.
This is the second of a two-part series about improving communication between people and their health care professionals.