Why blame the patient?

Posted on Mar 12, 2011 in Healthcare, Plain Language Blog Articles

by Joanne Locke

On March 1, the Washington Post published an article by Sandra Boodman’s on the need for clear health communication: “When Understanding is Critical”

She describes the some serious problems that can result when patients don’t understand how to comply with their doctor’s instructions.  But she seems to be  blaming the victim.  Rather than point out how many people have different levels of literacy – such as 90 million at the basic and below basic skill level – it’s important to recognize that we ALL occasionally have difficulty understanding health information:  especially when it affects us or someone we love.

We like to think that the issue of health literacy affects the other person – people who are less educated, or older, or who speak a different language.  But when a college-educated, middle-aged woman is told she has breast cancer, it can be nearly impossible for her to understand all the treatment options her doctor gives her when she is reeling from the diagnosis.  At stressful times like this, health professionals must use plain, clear language to communicate the information she needs in a way that she can understand.  Part of the health professional’s job is to communicate clearly – not the patient’s job to wade through the medical jargon to figure what to do next.

We are pleased to see many health professional organizations recognizing this challenge.  They are working to communicate clearly to everyone.  Our organization helps people write in plain language.  We celebrate their successes by awarding the annual ClearMark award for clear communication.  In 2010, Health Wise won the grand prize, and we hope to award more health organizations at this year’s event on April 28 at the National Press Club.