Can you understand me now?


One of the most entertaining days of the year for a communicator is the day Lake Superior State University releases its list of banished words – words people from across the country have decided are tiresome, cliché, redundant, or in the instance of “twerking” just outright annoying.

Nominees through the years include selfie (’14), bucket list (’13), pet parent (’12), and mama grizzlies (’11). The list often includes jargon from industries that grabbed the most headlines that year.

We all have words we use at work or in certain circles that make complete sense to members of the circle. Step outside that circle, however, and the words lose meaning or, even worse, cause confusion.

I picked up on this the other day from my son. I asked him how soccer practice went.

Between gulps of water, he assured me: “Oh, I was breakin’ ankles.”

He tried to explain, which required parenthetical definitions of additional words and acronyms. Eventually, I inferred that he did well.

When it comes to communication with your health care provider, do you want to leave the outcome up to inference? Translation: Do you always understand what a doctor or nurse is trying to tell you?

In health care speak, the term is health literacy – the ability for a person to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. That definition comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who has placed a priority on making sure health care providers adhere to health literacy standards.

A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that differences in health literacy levels were linked to more people having to be hospitalized and a higher use of emergency care. They also linked poor health literacy to lower use of preventative measures including getting a mammogram or a flu shot. People with lower health literacy were less likely to follow directions for medications or interpret labels or health instructions accurately.

“This is important for many reasons including that it’s now measured through patient experience surveys,” says one Banner Health Service Excellence Director, David Quigley. “As required for the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid, patients are randomly selected to receive a survey about their experience in the hospital or clinic, and the questions include whether they were satisfied with the communication from their physicians and from their nurses.”

Providers strive for excellent scores because they know it’s the right thing to do for the patient. “Our physicians, nurses and employees know that patients who understand and are able to participate in their care are in a better position to recovery from their illness or injury resulting in improved overall outcomes and long term well- being.”

Banner Health uses technology, tools and staff training to help make sure communication with patients is clear, culturally appropriate and accessible. This includes using video and audio interpretation, having patients “teach back” the instructions they have been given, and providing a “Language of Caring” course for employees. Hospitals also have a process by which patients who leave the hospital receive a telephone call shortly afterward to make sure all their questions were answered and that they have a good understanding of what they need to do to help their own healing process.

When miscommunication does occur, a person might be tempted to blame it on the physician or nurse. As a patient, I’m here to tell you that we do have some skin in the game, not to mention a heart, lungs, blood pressure and digestive tract. As patients, we have the responsibility to ask our physicians and nurses questions and make sure we’re clear before leaving the office.

“It is recommended that we not be intimidated and that we are involved in two-way communication” Quigley says. “If you don’t understand what your health care provider told you, speak up. Take notes, or have a friend or family member take notes while you talk. You can ask for a contact person to call if something comes to mind after you leave the hospital.”

Communication is a two-way street, and it’s up to both parties of travelers to make sure the path is clear.


To find answers to many health questions, please visit the online Health Library.

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