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  • Debbie Kerr

Patient education: how to explain terms

little girl dressed as doctor and holding a needle

A picture’s worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to patient education. This is what I discovered when I was a cancer patient. Without pictures, I found it difficult to grasp and remember what I had been told, especially since I had to learn so quickly. Now, as a communications professional and patient and family advisor, I want to promote using visuals to relay information to patients.   


Verbal comparisons

We intuitively create mental images when something is difficult to describe. For example, units of measurement can be problematic. We say the hail was the size of a golf ball instead of four centimeters in size. We draw maps to give people directions. To help children understand how many days it is until something exciting takes place, we talk about how many sleeps it is to make the concept of time easier to understand.

When it comes to medicine, however, a patient may be told “You have a two-centimeter tumour.”  “You have a four centimeter blockage.” Instead, patients would find it easier to grasp these sizes if they were told, “Your tumour is the size of a penny.” “Your blockage is the size of a golf ball.”

Drawings and graphics

A drawing my doctor did on the left and a graphic I drew with a circle and half circles around it to represent hormone receptors

In addition to measurement, medical terminology can be difficult to comprehend. For example, until I had breast cancer, I had never heard of a hormone receptor and it wasn’t until my radiation oncologist drew a circle with half circles around the edge of it that I came to visualize hormone receptors as suction cups and the cancer-causing estrogen hormones as marbles.

Pictures of real-life objects

tamoxifen use described with marbles and suction cups like on a bathmat

When my oncologist suggested that I take Tamoxifen to help keep my cancer from returning, I thought of small pieces of cardboard sliding over the suction cups (hormone receptors) so that the marbles (estrogen) could no longer fit into the cups and my cancer could not easily return because of my estrogen. While this analogy is not an exact science, it is all I needed to know to understand how the medication would work.

The digestive system can be compared to a series of pipes. If the size of a pipe decreases, the amount of food that can pass through a smaller pipe decreases until there is a blockage. Surgery may have to be done to remove that section of pipe so it can either be replaced or rerouted.

What’s even better about this comparison is that a working model of a series of pipes can be used to explain the procedure that can take place. The model can then become a teaching tool for patients so they gain the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their medical care.  And that’s the point.  


Patient education using a variety of methods

While writing at a lower grade level and in plain language can help with patient’s health literacy, using fewer words and more visuals can be even more useful. Medical personnel have the power to make a huge difference in patients’ lives by replacing the usual practice of telling patients their medical information with more of a teaching approach. They can supplement words to add clarity by using comparisons for size (like golf balls); drawing pictures (even very crude ones); comparing medical terminology to everyday items (suction cups and marbles); and, wherever possible, using working models (like pipes) as a means of teaching patients so they are informed and empowered to make good decisions.  



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May 06

Well done. We often talk about "Better communication." but we need to define how to do it. This article does it.


May 03
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great article Deb as always. When I had an ovarian cyst my doctor told me it was the size of an orange and then it grew to the size of a grapefruit and then we had to take action. I could easily understand that.

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