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Communication Is A Two-Way Street

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By Jamie Martin, Marketing & Communications Manager,
Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum


For several years, I’ve written, talked, Tweeted, Facebooked and blogged about the value of patient engagement. I’ve promoted the importance of being an educated patient by asking questions and doing research, and I have been a very vocal cheerleader for the patients who do those things.

And then I didn’t take my own advice.

Recently, a dear loved one required surgery to repair a subdural hematoma, a condition in which blood collects beneath the skull and puts pressure on the brain. The surgeon informed us that there would be “some confusion” after the surgery was complete and added, “Don’t worry about that because it will go away.”

So we didn’t worry about it…until the surgery was complete, and our loved one had not a clue who we were, who he was, where he was or even why he was there. From there, the “confusion” progressed to hallucinations, paranoia, memory loss and loss of verbal skills with brief periods in which he seemed perfectly fine, which kept us just as confused as he was.

So whose fault was it that we were so sadly unprepared for these behaviors? Was it the doctor’s fault for not being clearer about to expect after the surgery? Was it our fault for not asking more questions?

The answer: both.

The doctor should have provided us with more information. Instead of saying, “There will be some confusion, but don’t worry about that because it will go away,” he should have said, “There will be some confusion, so let me describe that in more detail so you know what to expect.” He could have provided some examples of types of behaviors that we might see and how we should handle those behaviors. He should have explained, in layman’s terms, the cause of those behaviors and what, if anything, could be done medically to treat them.

And we, as the family, had a responsibility to ask more questions: What kind of confusion? How long does it typically last? Will there be any long-term effects? What can we do to help reduce the confusion? How should we react to things like hallucinations, paranoia and loss of verbal skills? What medications will be given, and why?

Unfortunately, we tend to shy away from questioning our doctors. After all, they have spent years and years in school learning their skills – who are we to question what they tell us? But really, that is our job as health care consumers. Our doctors are not mind readers – they cannot answer the questions that we do not ask.

Think of it like this: We would never buy a car without asking the salesperson questions about warranties, gas mileage, safety features and the like – why do we accept health care services without asking our doctors about side effects, symptoms, medications and possible reactions?
So to my fellow health care consumers, please remember: If we do not ask questions, we will not receive any answers and our doctors will assume that we have all the information we need. A single question can start a conversation that will allow our doctors to empower us with all the details we need to make the right decisions about our health.

And doctors, nurses and health care professionals, please remember that we do not have your extensive training or your incredibly complex medical vocabularies. We may not always know what questions we need to ask, especially if we are in the midst of a medical crisis. We come to you because we trust you – please, take a few extra minutes to make certain that we understand what you’re saying to us.

Communication is truly a two-way street. As patients and providers, we have a responsibility to travel that street together.

Jamie Martin is a former print journalist from South Arkansas. As the communications manager for the Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum, she manages operational communications for health information technology (IT) initiatives in Louisiana. She is a wife, mother of four and an advocate for patient engagement. Connect with her on Twitter at @davisjamie77.

 

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