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    Patient engagement and diagnosis: bridging the communication gap

    Engaging patients and using plain language is one of the most effective ways to improve communication with patients, and therefore reduce the likelihood of malpractice incidents. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the provider-patient relationship is a major factor influencing patient participation in their care and the decision- making process. They found that engaged patients who take an active role are more likely to provide the type of information providers need to make most diagnoses.   

    For example, if a patient is experiencing severe stomach pains and is taking a prescribed medication, the provider may attribute these pains to a side effect of the medication, particularly if the patient doesn’t communicate that the pain started prior to when the medication was prescribed. Due to this miscommunication, a chronic condition may be overlooked.

    To support improved communication and thus improved patient outcomes, the National Patient Safety Foundation developed the “Ask Me 3” educational program to encourage providers to get answers from patients and family members to three specific questions during a visit. The three questions and recommendations below explain how providers can successfully communicate with their patients to garner the most meaningful responses. These recommendations are acknowledged to increase engagement, improve communication and reduce risk for diagnostic error.

    What is the main problem?

    Proper diagnosis requires the patient to provide an accurate family history, current medications and all medical information  deemed relevant. Providers should develop a patient engagement process that fosters communication with the patient to reveal an accurate medical history.  

    For example, ask for a detailed explanation of the symptoms they’re experiencing to ensure that the patient understands what information is relevant. This includes questions on timing, severity, onset of symptoms, changes over time, etc.  To get a better sense of severity, ask how these symptoms have impacted their day-to-day life. The more information gathered, the more accurate the diagnosis. 

    When communicating a diagnosis, avoid medical terminology. Instead, use plain language when speaking to patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a plain-language thesaurus to find replacement words that patients will better understand. 

    What do I need to do?

    Once the diagnosis is clearly communicated, the provider should offer the treatment option(s) and explain the risks and benefits of each option. Begin by presenting the recommended treatment options and all pros and cons, followed by alternative options and each of their risks and benefits. 

    Illustrations and visuals can improve the communication of treatment options to patients, and providers should allow the patient plenty of opportunity to ask questions and discuss the pros and cons of the options.


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