By Debbie Kerr
I wrote this blog post that was originally published April 24, 2018 on the Cancer Care Ontario website for Patient Experience Week.
A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when communicating with patients. While writing at a lower grade level and in plain language can improve comprehension, using fewer words and carefully chosen visuals can be even more helpful.
This is what I discovered when I was a cancer patient. Without being able to “see” information (even mentally), I found it difficult to grasp and remember what I had been told, especially since I had to learn about my condition and treatments so quickly.
Now, as a communications professional and a CCO patient advisor, I encourage healthcare providers to think about how they can help patients to understand their medical information – just as I encourage patients to proactively ask their healthcare providers for visuals.
In everyday life, we often create mental images when trying to explain a difficult or abstract concept.
For example, we describe four-centimetre-wide hail as being the size of a golf ball. We give directions by drawing maps and saying “turn left at the red house” rather than “turn southeast after two kilometres.”
The same principle should apply when talking to people about their health.
Instead of telling a patient about a 2-cm tumour or a 4-cm blockage, healthcare providers could use commonplace objects for comparison: “Your tumour is the size of a quarter” or “Your blockage is the size of a golf ball.”
Analogies can help
Medical terms can also be easier to understand when described with simple analogies.
For example, until I had breast cancer, I had never heard of a hormone receptor and had no idea what it does. But when my radiation oncologist drew a circle with half circles around the edge of it, I came to visualize hormone receptors as suction cups and the cancer-causing estrogen hormones as marbles.
When my oncologist suggested that I take tamoxifen to help keep my cancer from returning, I thought of small pieces of cardboard (the tamoxifen) sliding over the suction cups (hormone receptors) so that the marbles (estrogen) could no longer fit into the cups, thus inhibiting my cancer from returning.
While this analogy isn’t exact, scientifically speaking, it was all I needed to know to understand how my medication would work.
As another example, the digestive system can be compared to a series of pipes.
As the pipes get smaller, the amount of food that can pass through them decreases until there is a blockage. Surgery might be required to remove and replace or re-route the blocked section of pipe (intestine).
The best thing about this analogy is that it can be turned into a working model that can be used to explain a recommended medical procedure. The model becomes a learning tool for patients, which helps them understand and make informed decisions with their healthcare providers.
Healthcare providers can make a huge difference in patients’ lives by focusing more on teaching than on telling.
They can add clarity by using comparisons to everyday objects, creating analogies, drawing pictures (even very crude ones) and using working models as a means of ensuring patients clearly understand their health and their options.
And that’s the point of health education: to empower patients to be full partners in the management of their care.
Over 30-years of writing experience, over 10 years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.
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