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Keep It Simple Doc

April 20, 2011

Washington, DC -- Attention ob-gyns: Keep messages simple, don't use medical jargon, and tailor health care instructions to each individual when talking with patients, says The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College) in a new recommendation published in the May issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology. When women obtain and understand basic health information, they are more likely to make the most appropriate decisions regarding their health and are less likely to suffer from medical errors.

Nearly half of all Americans, including highly educated people, have difficulty understanding health information according to the Institute of Medicine. 'Health literacy' is the ability to process and understand health-related information. Adults with marginal to low health literacy skills are at increased risk for hospitalization; they encounter more barriers to getting necessary health care services; and they are less likely to understand their doctor's medical advice which can lead to poor outcomes, including death.

"The problem of health illiteracy is widespread and goes beyond those who can't read or those who don't speak English," said Patrice M. Weiss, MD, chair of the Committee on Patient Safety and Quality Improvement. "Physicians, nurses, social workers—everyone in the health care field—must make sure that our patients fully understand their health condition and their treatment, as well as the importance of taking their medications exactly as directed. We simply can't assume that a patient understands because she nods her head or because we think she seems educated."

The College outlines a number of concrete ways for physicians and other health care providers to help communicate clearly with patients, including:

  • Tailor speaking and listening skills to individual patients.
  • Use medically trained language interpreters when necessary.
  • Ask patients to restate what they've been told in their own words to gauge their understanding.
  • Use written materials with a limited number of simple messages.
  • Use visual aids for key points.
  • Use familiar language and avoid medical jargon.

Effective communication with patients is important to improving the nation's overall patient safety. "Many patients are called 'noncompliant' because they haven't followed their doctor's recommendations, but this may be because they don't understand what is expected of them," said Dr. Weiss. "As physicians, we need to use less complex language with our patients when explaining their health conditions, surgeries, and taking medications. Asking our patients to repeat back to us what they understand is enormously helpful in making sure they really do comprehend."

Committee Opinion #491, "Health Literacy," is published in the May 2011 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College), a 501(c)(3) organization, is the nation's leading group of physicians providing health care for women. As a private, voluntary, nonprofit membership organization of approximately 55,000 members, The College strongly advocates for quality health care for women, maintains the highest standards of clinical practice and continuing education of its members, promotes patient education, and increases awareness among its members and the public of the changing issues facing women's health care. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a 501(c)(6) organization, is its companion organization. www.acog.org


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