Dr. Rosina Connelly, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine and a pediatrician with USA Physicians Group, said communication between health care providers and patients is a big aspect of positive health outcomes.

Studies have shown that positive interactions during a health care visit lead to patients being more likely to connect with providers, follow advice and participate in their own care.

“The bottom line is that it is very important for both patients and health care providers to learn how to better communicate with each other in order to make the most of a health encounter,” she said.

Health literacy, or the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions, is a very important element when it comes to effective doctor-patient communication.

Limited health literacy skills affect more than 70 million American adults and can result in poorer health outcomes. It is linked to decreased health knowledge and understanding, delayed diagnoses, decreased physical and mental health, increased emergency room use and hospitalizations, increased mortality risk, and increased health care costs.

Health literacy encompasses a complex group of skills such as reading, listening and decision-making. “Understanding instructions on medication labels is a huge health literacy task, as is keeping up with appointments, procedures, health education materials and discharge instructions,” Dr. Connelly said.

In addition, health information is not getting any simpler. “If anything,” she said, “we now have more complex health information, and it’s easy to make a mistake when it comes to taking care of our health."

Dr. Connelly shared the following tips for making the most out of a health encounter:

If you are a clinician: slow down - sit down to talk to patients; avoid using medical jargon; limit the amount of information and repeat; check for understanding.

If you are a patient: know that the clinician’s time is limited, but not by the clinician’s choice (for several complex problems you may need to schedule separate visits); write down a list of problems or questions to discuss during the visit; present the three most concerning problems at the beginning of the visit; be assertive about your health concerns - let the clinician know your ideas and expectations about your health problem; don’t be afraid to ask the clinician to slow down or use simple terms; take notes and ask questions.

Dr. Connelly said patients are expected to take an active role in their health care visit. She encourages patients to use a strategy called “Ask Me Three Questions,” in which patients at least ask their physician the following: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important that I do this? “This ensures that you get all of the information you need and that you understand it,” she said.

In addition, Dr. Connelly encourages everyone to bring all medications to the visit in a brown bag (pill bottles, boxes, and labels). If you can’t bring them in, write down the name, dosages, and the time of day that you take them. In addition, it is important know why you are taking each medicine and how you take it.

Dr. Connelly said you should also bring someone you trust with you to the visit to help you remember what your doctor told you. “As a patient, you might be very stressed out and anxious,” she said. “This may cause you to not understand information, let alone new information that is being delivered to you with a lot of difficult terminology.”

Most importantly, Dr. Connelly said to seek information to further your knowledge. “Managing our health has become more of our own responsibility,” she said, “and we need to be better informed consumers of health information.”

Patients can find trusted health information to complement their knowledge and thus improve health. Dr. Connelly recommends medlineplus.gov, which provides general information on conditions, diseases and procedures. In addition, USA biomedical librarians are available to help you navigate health information. They can be found at USA’s Health Information Resource Center on the third floor of USA Medical Center. Their website is http://biomedicallibrary.southalabama.edu/library/.

To learn more about health communication and health literacy, visit health.gov.

Dr. Connelly recently gave an overview of health communication at the November Med School Café lecture. To view the lecture in its entirety, click here.

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