Transparent communication is the foundation of an effective partnership between patients and healthcare providers, especially in the arena of rare diseases, where digging up relevant facts and developing treatment plans are particularly difficult.

Efficient use of time with each patient is critical. Every day our healthcare providers are tasked with doing more with less and balancing patient needs with benchmark tracking visits, including minutes per patient for each appointment.

In all these processes and routines, there is a communications sweet spot. One where information is communicated clearly and with an eye on the clock. 


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However, the road to this sweet spot is littered with potential pitfalls. Do medical professionals say too much or too little? Or are they stuck treating patients like they are fellow healthcare providers? To avoid this, a balance between the overuse of clinical terminology and kindergarten speak is necessary. For people living with multiple sclerosis (MS), for example, the ability to completely understand clinical terms is essential to our health.

When writing or speaking to a layman audience, there are some general rules I suggest HCPs follow. First, define and focus on a generalized comprehension level; communicate in a way that is not too complex, but clear and direct in how complicated concepts are explained.

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And the same thing can be said when patients are in communication with their healthcare team. Laypeople do not have, for the most part, access to the same types of medical terminology used by professionals. We rely on the explanation given to us by our trusted HCP. That explanation should not only include complex vocabulary, when necessary, but enough of that language that the meaning does not get lost in translation.

An MS diagnosis leads to many hard conversations. Discussions about disease progression or disabling symptoms are not fun. They can be quite depressing, or confusing. Yet, there is nothing that says that medical conversation needs to be incomprehensible. The seriousness of the topic does not preclude it from being understandable. There is a tendency for us to believe that high-level medical discussion must be riddled with complexities, and incomprehensible terms, labels, and descriptions.

With MS, what a healthcare provider wants to tell a patient can come across as gobbledygook. All the talk about brain lesions and T or B cells can go over one’s head if we are not prepared. What makes a difference in the way in which the important information is relayed? Talk to me like a good friend would. We may not be besties in real life, but when we are in that exam room we turn into our best friends.

If you were speaking with a friend and wanted them to understand, would you use only technical vocabulary? Would you be careful in balancing specific terminology with colloquial language? Would you strive to be clear so your friend could be confident about what you are saying? Or would you be more concerned about your image, unwilling to show your ignorance when you don’t understand a concept, a medical term? 

Looking at medical provider and patient communication in this way can make a substantial difference. Better adherence to recommendations could be one result of clearer dissemination of information. More clearly stated, your MS patients are more likely to do what you recommend if they can understand what is being asked of them.

There is no one template for how to do this. How a medical professional shares information with one MS patient may be different than the way they communicate with a different MS patient. Getting it right will not be easy. You may have patients who struggle mightily to comprehend that about which you are talking. It’s quite possible that you have other patients with whom you can have a higher-level, more technical discussion.

Each method is valid, as long as the person living with MS gets the message.