Closing the gap between doctors and patients

A trip to the doctor can be confusing for patients unfamiliar with medical industry terms. In Southern California, doctors and educators are committed to bridging this divide by studying the science behind clear communication.

TRANSCRIPT

A trip to the doctor can be confusing for patients unfamiliar with medical-industry terms.

In Southern California, doctors and educators are committed to bridging this divide by studying the science behind clear communication.

Here's the story.

'You have cancer' -- three of the most frightening words anyone can hear.

It was true for Patricia Darby when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, in 2008.

It was really surprising and also scary.

Darby was just days away from a dream vacation to Italy when she got the news.

It sets off a bomb in your life with regards to your schedule, and, of course, you're afraid.

That's the most important thing is to take care of the health issue.

But all these things fly at once in your brain.

Just as important as her treatment plan was Darby's ability to communicate with her doctor.

Lawrence Wagman has been breaking bad news to patients for years.

He knows the pitfalls in patient-doctor communication.

I think the biggest error in communication is jargon.

I really do.

Abbreviations, words that you use with your colleagues but you can't use with your patients.

And those are the things where people just misinterpret it.

I mean, simple things, like benign and malignant can be misinterpreted.

Lisa Sparks is an expert in the field of health communication and messaging.

She teaches it as a leading researcher, even consults to the entertainment industry on medical messaging in Hollywood.

Sparks says 80% of medical errors are due to communication breakdowns.

And the science of communication begins with the doctor-patient relationship.

And what kind of cues are they getting back?

And hopefully they're paying attention to those feedback cues and then adjusting the message and maybe framing it in a different way and reading the nonverbal cues of the patient and the caregiver that might be with them or family member.

The cues are very, very important.

And the questions are very important, because a patient can ask you a question that tells you that you haven't really said something that they understand.

That's when, Sparks says, the doctors need to be well-versed in the science of communication.

Through asking questions, like, asking them what they understand -- 'Can you repeat back to me what you understand?

Can you explain?

What kinds of questions do you have for me?'

And then starting to probe from those questions, 'cause, a lot of times, the patient will say, 'Oh, no, I don't have any questions,' because they're just so freaked out, they want to get out of there.

'Do you understand?'

Wait and listen.

'You sure you understand.'

And, sometimes, you can see that doubt in somebody's face.

So before you move on, you say, 'I know you need to ask me a question before we go any further.'

Sparks says the science of communication can save lives, especially when patients take charge of the conversation.

You know, you need to be a savvy consumer of health information, as well, and you're responsible for your care and you're responsible for making sure that you're getting the information you need from your provider team.

And if you don't get it from one person, keep going down the chain of your provider team until you really are starting to understand the issue, 'cause it's definitely a two-way street.

For Darby, the rapport with Dr. Wagman gave her the confidence to fight and survive.

You felt like you were most important patient, when, rest assured, my small, small cancer is definitely not Dr. Wagman's biggest case.

He gave me a very wonderful feeling of confidence, and I just felt, you know, comfortable to talk and to be heard.

I do feel grateful for that.