Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) April 2017

Don’t be afraid to ask

Laura Oxenham-Murphy


Time spent in a hospital is usually stressful; whether it’s you, a family member or a close friend receiving treatment. I’m sure that your emotions are running a little higher than normal.  As someone with years of experience working in the healthcare system, yet who has limited experience as a patient, I am only now beginning to understand what it’s like to be a patient in the system, and how often patients need to ask questions.

In my experience at work, one of the most cited ways for hospitals to improve the patient and family experience is to increase the clarity of communication from healthcare providers to patients and their families. Now that I’m on the other side of the equation, I can’t say enough about how true this is. If I had one piece of advice to give to fellow users of the Canadian healthcare system, it would be this: don’t be afraid to ask questions! On the whole, healthcare providers have their patients’ best interests at heart; after all, the reason most people choose a profession in healthcare is to help others in need. So remember that – they want to help you, and they want to make sure that you and your family understand the information that they share with you.

One of the strangest things I find about healthcare is that providers will give devastating diagnoses and then move on to treatment options and prognosis 10 seconds later. I can say from experience that anything said immediately after the diagnosis is not heard. Even though we face long wait times to see our providers, so having two separate appointments to discuss diagnosis and treatment plans may not be realistic – it is realistic, and more importantly your right, to ask your provider for a few minutes during an appointment to process the news before moving on.

If your provider uses a term or acronym that you don’t understand – there are so many in healthcare – ask them to clarify. If they talk too fast, ask them to slow down. If you didn’t hear something that they said, ask them to repeat it. If you want something written down, ask them to write it down. If you want a second opinion, ask for one. If they didn’t speak to possible side effects or complications, ask them to. If you read about something on Doctor Google that you think is relevant, ask them about it. If you want their opinion on whether the Leafs are going to win the Stanley cup this year, ask them! At first it is a little intimidating, but once I tested it out I was reassured that providers were eager to answer my questions. Remember, as a patient or a loved one, no question is a dumb question.

There's no reason to be intimidated, although many people are. Providers are using medical jargon all day long and sometimes use it with their patients without thinking about it – not to confuse or condescend, but because it's an automatic mode of speech for them. Don't feel bad about asking your provider to translate what they are saying into plain language. If you don't, there’s a good chance you could misunderstand something critical to your health.

If you continue to be intimidated, remember this:  as tax paying citizens, we are all paying the salaries of many of our healthcare providers, so in a way that makes all of us their bosses, right? After all, research evidence has demonstrated that a strong positive relationship exists between patient-provider communication and a patient’s ability to follow through with medical recommendations, self-manage their condition and adopt positive behaviour changes.

About the Author(s)

Laura Oxenham-Murphy, MHA, Manager, Quality - Quality, Safety and Performance, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital


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