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Communicating with patients in layman’s terms


Patients who are able to clearly understand their physician’s diagnosis and care instructions tend to be more engaged, leading to improved outcomes. Whether the communication is face to face or conducted via a doctor-patient communication app, communicating with patients in layman’s terms is critical to their overall health and well-being.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told JAMA Editor in Chief Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, MAS, in a recent interview that physicians should “know exactly what your message is, know who your audience is, and say things in a way that’s concise—not meandering.” Dr. Fauci adds that healthcare professionals should “Make it clear that you are going to communicate and often make recommendations and guidelines because that’s what the public looks to scientists and public health officials to do.”

Consistency is also critical when communicating with patients, Dr. Fauci advises. He further explains that “You can’t get rattled; just make sure you stick with the science. And you have to do that consistently. Consistency in science is important.” He adds, though, that “Changing when change is warranted is important.”

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Clear and concise information communicated compassionately and in terms patients can understand is the key to a successful provider-patient relationship as well. A helpful communication strategy, known as AIDET, includes the five fundamentals of patient communication:

  • Acknowledge: Being attentive and greeting the patient in a positive manner
  • Introduce: Giving your name, your role, and your skill set
  • Duration: Giving a reasonable time expectation
  • Explanation: Making sure the patient is knowledgeable and informed
  • Thank you: Showing appreciation to the patient for their cooperation.

In addition, many experts recommend the RESPECT Model, which helps to improve the physician’s awareness of potential cultural biases and to enable the physician to develop a rapport with patients who are from different cultural backgrounds. The RESPECT Model can be important for communications in person, on the phone, or through a doctor-patient communication app, and emphasizes:

  • Rapport
  • Empathy
  • Support
  • Partnership
  • Explanations
  • Cultural competence
  • Trust

Taking the time to address all of the patient concerns is also a critical part of patient communication and sustainable practice models. Increasing the time allotted for each visit can be crucial to improving patient communication, particularly as it leads to shared decision making.

Many highly qualified healthcare providers who excel in their field are simply not skilled at communicating with patients in layman’s terms. It’s also important to understand that most patients come to the doctor’s office in a state of anxiety or fear over what may or may not be wrong with them. Remember that the patient does not have the same medical training and will probably not understand a lot of the terms that come naturally to the physician’s mind.

Other tips for communicating with patients include:

  • Speak slowly and clearly in terms they understand.
  • Be polite and make an effort to understand the patient’s concerns.
  • Make the patient feel heard and understood, which can make the visits go much more smoothly.
  • Be completely honest with patients, allowing a line of trust to be built and enabling a more effective provider-patient relationship.

In most cases, the patient’s complaint about their healthcare provider is related to issues of communication rather than clinical competency. Patients simply want physicians who can communicate effectively in addition to being able to diagnose and treat them appropriately. As Dr. Terry Canale stated in an American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons Vice Presidential Address, “The patient will never care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”