An Ob-Gyn shared with me the fact that, a few times each year, she encounters an adult patient who has misconceptions about basic female anatomy.
An Ob-patient educator agreed: “Sure, I’m often saying to patients, ‘our plumbing and our other parts are close together down there.’”
Patients may walk into the encounter with misconceptions about what they’re doing there, what you’re doing there, or what’s going to happen. They may have misconceptions about treatments, or about human anatomy, or about how the health care system works. Even about you as a doctor.
You’re trying to engage patients, as well as share important information. Doctors tell me they do not want to let these misconceptions get in the way—of a successful encounter, and of a good patient-provider relationship. Can this be done?
Could misconceptions ever be helpful?
“How can ‘people’ be so ‘stupid’”?
Misconceptions can add to everyone’s frustration. They can slow down progress. They can make it harder to build relationships. They can have personal health consequences, such as on a patient’s willingness to follow a recommended treatment, and public health consequences, such as those surrounding efforts to address global antibiotic resistance.
How can misconceptions be so prevalent as research suggests they are?
We all have ideas about how the world works. About how things go, or ought to go.
We develop these sets of ideas, and ways to express them, over time. They are based on our own experience in life. But they are also heavily influenced by our communities, by the groups of which we’re a part. And somewhat by society at large. We learn about the world, and how to make sense of it, from our experiences and from the people around us.
What does this have to do with misconceptions?
You may have seen articles in popular media about how ‘everyday’ people understand scientific or technical concepts. Measure us up against the experts, and we almost always score badly. Then the experts wring their hands.
Linguist James Gee took a closer look at such studies. He wrote about how scientists and everyday people understand the same words, and some basic scientific concepts, differently. As an example, he used a study where scientists analyzed school students’ answers to questions about the light from a candle (such as “how far will the light travel?”).
The study, like many others, concludes that everyday people’s understandings of common phenomena (in this case, light from a candle) are unacceptable.
Gee writes, “’How, you might ask, can ‘people’ be so ‘stupid?’ I would argue that people are not, in fact, so stupid.”
On one hand, everyday language works at a level of specificity that is entirely adequate for everyday life. But it would not measure up to scientific standards for exactitude. For example, from the candle experiment, Gee compares the everyday use of the word ‘light’ with the scientific term ‘illumination.’
He goes further and points out how in everyday life, we are acting and talking as everyday people, and not as specialists. Within the context of ‘everyday life,’ our language works. Light means light.
That is to say, in everyday life, we are not trying to be as correct as specialists, for various reasons. And our language and thinking reflect that.
Consider inter-professional education events, when you might have trouble understanding the professional discourse of colleagues in another specialty. Or the time you spend outside your professional context, in everyday life, speaking as an everyday person.
“People are not, in fact, so stupid.”
Now, your ideas about how the human body works are much more informed than everyone else’s. They are built on millennia of research, supported by your study, and enriched by your years of experience.
The rest of us non-specialists are also walking around with ideas about how our bodies work. Those ideas may or may not have scientific merit. But just like yours, they are based on our experiences, our knowledge, and our communities. And they are just as cohesive.
Your task then is to understand your patient’s understanding. That is, find out how their misconception makes sense to them. What do they understand? Not understand?
You’re seeking to understand them on their own terms. Without this starting point, communication is utterly disconnected.
Embrace misconceptions and improve patient relationships
The good news is: a misconception is a window into a person’s thinking—and potentially more.
Your expert knowledge means you know enough to find the sense or logic in patient misconceptions. In other words, it’s part of your job to see where they are coming from.
The Ob-Gyn I mentioned at the start later expressed to me her concern that adult females were out of touch with their own bodies. Indeed, there are distressing cultural and social realities that could lead to a woman reaching adulthood and still having her body seem foreign to her.
Consider some possibilities for such a patient:
- for any number of reasons, perhaps she has never had a good thorough look at her own body. It is not difficult to imagine the cultural pressure against such actions.
- If she has had a good look, she might not have been clear on what she saw. Access to information matters in misconceptions.
- If she has had children, it’s likely there were other things on her mind during labor and postpartum.
- Maybe she’s been surrounded by males her whole life. Male reproductive anatomy is more visible, and it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to assume that what was true about their bodies was true for hers.
This patient wants to be taken seriously on her own terms, as we all do. It is important to remember that cultural norms can include silences, taboos, and secrets. These are not limited to women, of course; males also encounter cultural silences, as described in this article on testicular cancer detection.
As the ObGyn and I spoke, it became clear to me that her concern was also over the larger problem of cultural norms that could keep a woman from knowing her body more accurately. She was reflecting on her years of accumulated examples of women with misconceptions about their reproductive systems. We discussed how such norms might connect to political battles over women’s health, and socially-constructed ideals of womanhood.
In engaging patients in decision-making, you attempt to show them that you have their best interests at heart. You’re going to do this with compassion, and all the wisdom you can muster—in order to understand how your patient sees their situation, and how this makes sense to them.
Don’t let misconceptions drive a wedge between you and your patient
As the provider, and the holder of the expert information, it’s your job to make the connection between what your patient thinks and what you think. The faster you can see the sense behind what she says, the faster you can get on with communication that matters.
Communication that’s going to meet her where she’s at. Communication that shows respect. You have taken the time to learn her perspective, and taken the additional step to see the logic in her alternative response.
Keep in mind that:
- whatever your patient says is related to assumptions or beliefs that they hold
- these assumptions and beliefs make sense to that patient
With this in mind, you can begin with the misconception, and build a bridge between your understandings, regardless of how far away you feel from them.
Misconceptions are your secret advantage in patient education
What you’re trying to do is connect your patient’s understanding to yours. Building bridges is particularly important when your patient does or says something you find frustrating because of its likely negative impact on their health.
Until you find out what make sense to this person about the topic at hand, there will be disconnects.
You may teach a quick anatomy mini-lesson with a poster, skeleton, x-ray, or app. When you do, at each possible step, connect your expert understanding to your patient’s everyday understanding. Their misconception is the basis for your education efforts.
Consider sharing with your patients a time you had a misconception about the body, and how you came to know what you know now. Perhaps share with us here, as well, in the comments.