When we’re talking about health, sometimes it can feel like we’re speaking different languages. Different groups have different ways of talking and thinking about health, wellness, and healthcare.
So who’s in your neighborhood when it comes to health communication? Who do you find it easiest to talk with?
And what does it take to talk to folks from other neighborhoods?
In this episode, you’ll learn
- why we tend to cluster in groups when it comes to talking and thinking about healthcare
- how to start noticing what you consider ‘normal’ health and communication about health
- how to start bridging out to patients, the public, or your colleagues who may speak a different ‘health language’ than you
Hi. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. This is 10 minutes to better patient communication.
While I was there, walking across campus, down hallways or sidewalks, or taking elevators in various parts of the medical campus, I was participating in, or overhearing, multiple conversations about health and healthcare.
And this brought into strong focus for me: when we’re talking about health, sometimes it can feel like we’re speaking different languages.
I don’t mean world languages or regional dialects. I mean the ways people talk when we are talking about health and well-being and healthcare.
So, in this episode, I’ll invite you to think about, as Mr. Rogers would say, who are the people in your neighborhood when it comes to talking about health? And what would it take to talk to someone outside your neighborhood?
This is about paying enough attention to your language–and making small adjustments–so you can speak in a way patients will understand. Or the public. Or your colleagues across campus.
In case you haven’t heard, I’ve written a workshop that helps you dig down and get better at one specific kind of language you use all the time – metaphors. We all use them and they’re powerful teaching tools. But they can also backfire. So I’ve made a one hour, on-demand workshop for you, showing you how to break down the metaphors you use, understand their cognitive and affective aspects, and evaluate them in use. Right on health communication partners.com.
Over the past few years, I have been able to interact with many people who are aware of and concerned about the language they use when it comes to health. Health professionals, patients, administrators, educators, and policy activists.
And across and within groups, the terminology is different. The focus of the conversations are different. The knowledge, assumptions, and motivations are different.
In short, people’s ways of thinking, talking about, and ‘doing’ health, wellness, and health care are different.
Yet, a defining goal of health communication is better health for all.
We’re all human. We tend to be more comfortable speaking in some places, to some people, than others. We feel more or less confident in our knowledge depending on where we are, and who’s listening. We feel a more valued part of some contexts than others.
So, as I was moving among building and groups at Columbia’s Medical Center Campus, I was thinking about what it takes to talk across different health languages. And today I’ll give you 3 ways you can start talking across difference.
We are trying to do this ‘talking across’ all the time.
For example, from provider to patient. I frequently hear clinicians express concern about their own effectiveness in articulating their knowledge to patients ‘at bedside.’ Or patients to find the right ways to make themselves understood to their providers.
From researchers to clinicians. Some of the public health professionals I spoke with at Columbia are concerned with being able to effectively synthesize research, and present it to clinicians or to the public in a way that will inform thoughtful action.
From one specialization to another. This is what interprofessional communication and IPE are all about.
So I thought it would be helpful to park it for a few minutes on the fact that language and learning are social.
That is, all these differences in our health languages are a result of our participation in various communities. Our professional communities. Our neighborhoods and families and multiple social groups. We are socialized into the ways we talk, think, act, and more.
The process of earning a professional degree or certification is a significant socialization process. That’s where people learn to talk, think, read and write in ways that are necessarily specific to an area of expertise.
The various contexts we move through each day all have their own rules and norms. What is acceptable or normal in one is not necessarily so in another. Professional jargon just wouldn’t feel right after hours. You talk in a meeting in a different way than you make small talk with a neighbor.
Success or comfort (or lack thereof) in one does not automatically translate into another. Knowing your health language well doesn’t mean you automatically can translate into someone else’s health language.
And to complicate things, our understandings of health are socially mediated.
What we hear and say and learn and pick up in our communities inform our conceptual basis as we read, write, talk about, think about, listen to, process, and act on what it means to be healthy.
So talking across difference comes down to the fact that we tend to take our perspective (on health and language) as normal. And this set of lenses can be incredibly difficult to shake off. But that’s what I want to help you start to do.
We all have been socialized into various ways of thinking about and talking about health, well-being, and health care. For each of us, This is our normal.
In health communication, we want someone else to understand something that we believe is important to their health and well-being. There are several steps to this process.
Being aware of your normal – and that this normal is socially arrived at – is a difficult but massively important first step.
And step two is: to start to talk across difference.
So let’s turn to the patient encounter.
Patient encounters are interesting examples of many different ‘kinds’ of health languages, together in one place and time.
The people involved have different knowledge and experience. Different normals. Your patients or clients have ideas about health and healthcare, shaped in their communities, through a lifetime of experience. Certainly, the average American just doesn’t know a lot of things that health professionals know. And sure, there are some funny ideas out there around health and bodies.
So there’s the ‘difference’ in the health languages between patient and provider.
But there’s also quite a number of other health languages at work in a patient encounter. think just for a moment of all the written texts. The pamphlets, lists, forms, and of course the electronic medical record. All of these are loaded with ideas about what’s right, proper, or normal when it comes to health, well-being, and health care.
Everyone has their normal. Everyone can communicate. But it’s not a level playing field.
When it comes to health and well-being, you as a health professional are in the position to shape the conversation. In part, this means you have the power to start where people are, and begin the work of talking across difference. Bridge-building, if you will.
So get a grip on your normal. Then remember: your patient or client or colleague has their own normal too—that makes just as much sense to them as your normal does to you.
Here are three ways you can tune into your patients’ normal—and start building the bridge between you. With some handy phrases:
- Check for your own understanding of their perspective “If I hear you right, what you’re saying is this…”
- Ask clarifying questions about issues that emerge. “You mentioned x. Tell me about that.”
- Use your patients’ words back to them. As closely as you can get to what your patient actually said. “it was helpful to me/I thought it was quite insightful how you described x as [what your patient said]. Let’s go over the choices you’re facing with x.”
If you’re listening closely, you’ve already picked up on the fact you could also use these statements with your colleagues across campus. Or with focus groups in your research. Or with someone from another neighborhood.
This has been 10 minutes to better patient communication. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. Thanks for listening.