Words carry with them a significant amount of weight in the medical field, especially when it comes to delivering potentially life-altering news to expecting patients. Given the gravity of these situations, choosing the proper set of words, as well as the manner, tone and timing of delivery is of utmost importance. Yet some health-care professionals still manage to fail miserably in doing so and use “words that harm” rather than “words that heal.” Consequently, patients and those close to them can get the wrong idea regarding their condition, which can lead to excessive fear and anxiety, compromising a patient’s ability to make coherent decisions and possibly even causing further complications. According to a report from The Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation, there are a number of contributing factors that lead to these issues, but by becoming aware and instilling basic modifications, they can be easily avoided.
Words that harm
The report claims that physicians’ use of words that harm can be explained by the following: the uncertainty of medicine, time pressure of the clinical setting, desire to convey a sense of urgency or an inability to recognize the impact certain words or images might have on patients. Consequently, based off of one or a combination of these factors, physicians may use complex medical jargon, inappropriate metaphors or other ambiguous or fear-inducing language when delivering news. Taking this approach can leave patients unclear on their status and too frightened to ask questions. Living in constant fear that may be unfounded puts an additional strain on a patient and can only exacerbate matters further with the potential of leading to dire consequences.
Words that heal
Authors of the report offer a number of suggestions that will be more likely to elicit words that heal, but above all, they stress the importance of using clear and simple language in lieu of complicated or clandestine medical talk. Physicians need to put more thought into phrases they use, avoiding words that intensify emotion or destroy hope and focus on language that adapts and responds to a patient’s experience. Instead of using an unknown term to describe a condition, explain exactly what is happening to a patient, allowing them ample time to process the information and ask questions if needed. In addition to verbal communication, subtle additions like grasping the patient’s hand or touching their shoulder can further establish a sense of empathetic compassion and quell any inherent fears. The ultimate goal should be to give strength to the patient and enable them to be more self-reliant as they prepare to deal with whatever’s coming at them. By taking the time to evaluate word choice, approach and their eventual impact, physicians can create a solidified relationship with patients and ensure the best possible setting for combating their condition.
An open invitation to our patients
We want you to have the best experience possible at our practice. As noted in the journal summary above, we are well aware that high quality communication is of the utmost importance when it comes to our relationship with you. If at any time you have questions about your condition, treatment plan, billing, or other related issues, please do not hesitate to ask.
-As reported in the July 2004 Arch of Internal Medicine