“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

One of our favorite stories is that of two boys talking to one another with a dog sitting nearby. One boy says to the other, “I taught my dog how to whistle.” Skeptically, the other boy responds, “Really? I don’t hear him whistling.” The first boys then replies, “I said I taught him. I didn’t say he learned!”

We spend a lot of time as physicians going over information with our patients, yet, according to the best data available, they retain only a small portion of what we tell them. Medication adherence rates for chronic disease range from 30% to 70%, showing that many doses of important medications are missed. Patients often don’t even remember the last instructions we give them as they are walking out of the office. This raises questions about both the way we explain information and how we can use the tools at our disposal to enhance the communication so vital to patient outcomes.

To answer these questions, we must understand a core dilemma of modern medicine: We, along with our electronic health records, suffer from what experts have termed “the curse of knowledge.” Essentially, we know so much that we often skip over the basics and explain nuances of care to patients without first covering the fundamentals. In the health setting, it’s easy to make this mistake. Terms like “diaphoretic,” “bronchospasm,” “dermatitis,” “fistula,” and “ambulate” (to name just a few) seem innocent enough. In many cases they’ve even made it into the common vernacular. However, patients may not have the framework on which to hang these terms when they are shared in a medical context. Emotions may impede their understanding or color their interpretation. They may not feel comfortable asking for clarification or even know which questions to ask.

Obviously, we need to consider our words carefully and focus on teaching, not just speaking. What sets teaching apart from speaking is consideration of the learner. The better we understand our patients’ perspectives, the better the knowledge transfer will be. A simple way to address this may be better eye contact.

We have all heard the expression “the eyes are a window to the soul.” Yet, we now have computers that acts as a virtual shades, covering that window and drawing our gaze away from our patients. These shades can blind us to important clues, impeding communication and leading to misunderstanding, missed opportunity, and even patient harm. This is why some practices have chosen to use scribes to handle documentation, freeing up physicians’ eyes and addressing another obstacle to communication: time.

One of the most cited complaints from physicians is lack of time. There is an ever-growing demand on us to see more patients, manage more data, and “check off more boxes” to meet bureaucratic requirements. It should come as no surprise that these impede good patient care. We are thankful that attempts to modernize payment models are recognizing this problem. For example, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) helps to blaze the trail by focusing on care quality, practice improvement, and patient satisfaction for incentive payments. While these are early steps, they certainly point to a future more concerned with value than with volume.

As we move toward that future, we need to acknowledge that information technology can be both the problem and the answer. The current state of health IT is far from perfect. The tools we use have been designed, seemingly, around financial performance or developed to meet government requirements. It appears that neither physicians nor patients were consulted to ensure their usability or utility. Step No. 1 was getting EHRs out there. Steps 2-10 will be making them useful to clinicians, patients, and health care systems. Part of that utility will come in their ability to enhance communication.

Take patient portals, for example. The “ meaningful use program ” set as a requirement the ability for patients to “view, download, or transmit” their health information through electronic means. EHR vendors complied with this request but seem to have missed the intent of the measure. Patients accessing the information often are confronted with a morass of technical jargon and unfamiliar medical terms, which may even be offensive. For example, we recently spoke to a parent of a teenager with moderate intellectual disabilities. A hold-out ICD-9 code on the teen’s chart translated to her portal as “318.0 – Imbecile.” Her mother was appropriately upset, and she decided to leave the practice.

As we begin to understand technology’s advantages – and learn its pitfalls – we believe EHR vendors must enhance their offerings while engaging both providers and patients in the process of improvement. We also believe physicians need to leverage the entire care team to realize the software’s full potential. This approach may present new challenges in communication, but it also presents new opportunities. We hope that this collaborative approach will allow physicians to have more time to spend connecting with patients, leading to enhanced understanding and satisfaction.

Our knowledge of human health and disease is growing more sophisticated and so is the challenge of imparting that knowledge to patients. It is critical to find ways to do so that are relevant and understandable and give patients the tools they need to reinforce and remember what we say. This is one of the promises that we are just beginning to see fulfilled by modern EHR technology. Unlike the boy who was trying to teach his dog to talk, our words have deep impact, and our roles as educators have never been more important.

Dr. Notte is a family physician and clinical informaticist for Abington (Pa.) Memorial Hospital. He is a partner in EHR Practice Consultants, a firm that aids physicians in adopting electronic health records. Dr. Skolnik is associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Memorial Hospital and professor of family and community medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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