It’s hard to be a patient. Healthcare appointments can be short and feel rushed. Patients may be in pain or feel scared and overwhelmed. These difficulties are compounded when patients struggle to read, write, or speak the local language.
As teachers, family members and friends, you can help. Here are some ways to help people you care for, and care about, be better patients:
1. Help people prepare for healthcare appointments
Talk with the person having an appointment about ways to make the most of their time with a doctor or other healthcare provider. This includes planning what to discuss during the brief office visit. Many patients find it helpful to write a list of health concerns to bring to their appointment. You might also talk with the patient about ways to remember what the doctor said. Ways to do so can include taking notes or recording the spoken conversation.
2. Ask if the patient wants someone to go with them to the appointment
This is especially important when the patient anticipates hearing upsetting news, learning complicated instructions, or being asked to make important healthcare decisions. Help the patient decide who to ask and how that person might be of assistance during and after the healthcare appointment.
3. Teach ways to clearly communicate symptoms
Doctors can more easily diagnose health problems and make treatment recommendations when they fully understand a patient’s symptoms. Patients can help by keeping track of what the problem is, when it started, and how often it occurs and then clearly communicating this information. You might help by giving examples and working with the patient on wording. For instance, when talking about chronic knee pain, a patient might tell the doctor, “My knee feels a little stiff each morning when I get out of bed.” But if the symptom is more acute, the patient might say, “This pain started all of a sudden and hurts so much that I cannot walk or even stand up.”
4. Encourage patients to ask questions
It is important to ask questions during healthcare appointments. But sometimes it is hard to think clearly in the moment. Talk ahead of time about good questions and perhaps practise asking them. Many people find it helpful to frame questions along the lines of these from AskMe3:
1) What is my main problem?
2) What do I need to do?
3) Why do I need to do it?
You can learn more about AskMe3 here.
5. Set up a pillbox to take medications correctly
It is hard to keep track of medications, especially when patients take multiple ones at varied times. To help, you might encourage patients to put their medications in a pillbox that is sectioned off by time and day. Pillboxes like these are a great way to see which medication to take, when.
6. Help patients create their own medical records
In many ways, patients are the experts about their own health. But it can be hard to keep track of important information. I, and many others, have found it helpful to create a personal health record. This is like the chart a doctor uses to note a patient’s diagnoses, treatments, and test results. The medical record I keep for myself is a three-ring binder with tabbed sections for test results, medical reports, questions to ask, notes from appointments, medication lists, and important medical-legal papers. I’ve used this binder for years and refer to it before each healthcare appointment.
7. Talk about how to recognise a medical emergency
This includes knowing what symptoms to pay attention to, how fast to take action, and who to call or where to go for help. Knowing how to respond in a medical emergency can truly be life-saving.
8. Recommend resources to learn more
Make it easy for patients to learn as much as they want to know about health and illness. You can help by telling them about credible, up-to-date, patient-friendly resources. These include websites, apps, articles, hot lines, blogs, and associations. A very good website to find easy-to-read health information in English and Spanish is Healthfinder.gov, from the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Helen Osborne is widely recognised as an expert in health literacy. She is president of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month, and host of the podcast interview series, “Health Literacy Out Loud.” Helen is also author of the award-winning book, “Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition.” To learn more about Helen’s work and background, go to healthliteracy.com. You can also contact her directly at Helen@healthliteracy.com