Medicus Sunday Serial | Decoding “Pharmaspeak” and Connecting with Patients
If nothing else, 2020 has been an interesting year in words. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to dominate the headlines, hitherto-unfamiliar terms such as “R number”, “herd immunity”, and “incubation period” have forced their way into the vernacular. Yet behind the jargon lies a desire for clarity: in this fascinating Medicus Sunday Serial, Medicus AI’s Head of Marketing and Content Serene Touma and Research Team Leader Nisreen Hassoun discuss the need for better communication on both sides of the patient-doctor relationship. Later, they examine how digitization in healthcare is influencing the medical landscape.
Hello Nisreen, and thank you for taking the time to chat with me today about a topic I know we are both quite passionate about. Although we approach things from totally different sides, you, a pharmacist, and me, a writer, our work together has given me one of my most valuable working relationships at Medicus. It’s always great to discover that we can continue to learn from each other, and on a daily basis too!
That said, you’ve recently crossed over onto my territory: although you’re a pharmacist by profession and training, you recently launched an Instagram account and are creating your own original content. Can you tell me a little bit about that, and why you felt it was an important channel to create?
Hi Serene! Firstly, thank you for your kind words. The feeling is mutual. In terms of my new content drive, I guess it all started 3 years ago. At the time, I was on a TV show that dealt with medicinal plants, the subject of my master’s degree. One of the things I noticed was that people were really not aware of the risks that such plants can pose, and as I dealt with the topic, I received more and more questions on YouTube and Facebook.
I then had a goal: I wanted to do more online. This was more of a general desire to reach out to people, especially as I’m not currently working in a pharmacy, but this need became more acute when the COVID-19 pandemic reached its peak in July. I was really shocked by people sharing news and remedies that were dangerous, and I felt the need to step in.
It’s not just that these suggestions wouldn’t have helped in treating the coronavirus: some of the combinations that were suggested could have caused fatal interactions for people with certain chronic conditions. This was really the cue for me to create my account and focus on awareness for medicinal safety: my main goal is to start communicating things related to medicines and supplements.
There’s also an “FAQ” element to the content: answering questions like “How do I take medicine safely?” “What happens if I take medication on an empty stomach?” or “When can I split a tablet, and how?”
الفيديو بيشرح جميع شروط وممنوعات قسم حبات الدواء قبل تناولها... الموضوع مهم جدا لأنو ممكن قسم الحبة…
[Follow @pharmacist_nisreen on Instagram for more, in Arabic only for now]
It really makes you think about how people’s exposure to different types of information can influence them. I’m a content creator and copywriter without a medical background of any kind, which means my role often forces me into that of the “user advocate”. I often find myself pushing back when it comes to content from our medical teams, and asking the million-dollar question: “What does that actually mean?”
One of the most interesting things is how certain phrases or words can be common amongst pharmacists or medical professionals but have no real meaning to users.
My favorite example is “equivocal” for the outcome of a test result: I had to look that one up! Instead of leaving users with an understanding of their health, jargon leaves them with doubts, trying to decipher what is going on.
That leads me to my next question. What could the medical community do better when it comes to explaining things to patients?
There is simply not enough communication. Patients are often shy, and doctors and nurses are busy, which makes it hard to even explain the minimum. However, as we say at Medicus, understanding health requires an understanding from everyone.
I notice that there is a genuine desire on the patient side to know more, but there is simply not enough communication from either end. Many people feel there’s no time or space to ask the questions they want to, while the questions that do get asked have complicated answers.
Sadly, there is a lack of simple words that explain to patients what is happening in certain cases. A good example of this is the difference in perception between “controlling” and “curing” a health condition. In the end, it can really frustrate or upset patients, which in turn can make doctors’ jobs harder.
Most patient questions start with “why” or “what happens when”. The key to answering these is to use simple words that mean things to patients, really explaining why a treatment or medication is necessary, or why it is important to run tests, and explaining the importance of follow-up visits to a doctor. This is where we really need your help, Serene, your input from the “user advocate” side makes us really think about our choice of vocabulary.
We are lucky to be working on a couple of ambitious initiatives at Medicus, envisioned as a direct outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic and the changing attitudes to health. Specifically, they address the patient’s understanding of their own health and their awareness of the ways diseases can spread.
One of the big shifts has been in people’s enthusiasm for interacting with their doctors, and we have seen the results of this in the rise of telemedicine worldwide. However, telemedicine also comes with its limitations: What would be your concerns about moving healthcare online, and in your opinion, what do you think could be done to mitigate the potential negatives?
As the shift toward teleconsultation gathers speed, people are beginning to understand its potential: the medical community now accepts this channel as a valid way of treating patients. However, my concern is that digital care and support cannot reach everyone in every community, especially the elderly or the economically disadvantaged, and it’s not ethical or fair to exclude these groups. We need to think of ways to overcome the issue of reach.
My other concern is patients not taking the process seriously. They may not understand the need for data privacy, regulation, and accreditation, which are vital if the telemedicine ecosystem is to be reliable and trustworthy.
In terms of the long-term future of telemedicine, there are certain limitations in practice to ideas that work in theory.
Patients have a tendency to talk down or talk up their symptoms or their progress with a medication. In a face-to-face scenario, a doctor would be able to read between the lines and interpret body language in order to find the real truth.
I would also like to add that the telemedicine process needs to involve pharmacists as well: we’re really the people who tell you how and when to take your medication, which is especially important if you are already receiving other treatments. Healthcare doesn’t stop when you leave the doctor’s office, and it’s important people understand this.
Our vision at Medicus is simple in essence, to help people understand their health, but we know it’s not that simple in practice. We spend a lot of time considering the ways in which doctors communicate with patients, simply to understand their symptoms as best as possible and to take the first steps on the diagnostic and treatment journey.
When we started to dig into this together, our first step was to look at how medical tests and the biomarkers they cover are described. We quickly realized that there is a gap between what is communicated by healthcare professionals and what is understood by patients. What advice would you give pharmacists or doctors today to help them become clearer communicators?
Good question. Firstly, I think it’s key that people in the medical field have active listening and communication skills. This can be just as important as their medical expertise. I think it would be a major step forward if good, concise content was provided to the patient as soon as the telemedicine session was over. However, patients themselves need to get smart when it comes to finding trustworthy information. Don’t ask the neighbors, your relatives, or worse, Google.
This has been one of the positive outcomes of COVID-19, the idea of appreciating clear information and the importance of scrutinizing its sources. For other illnesses, sadly, the range of written material is less well-defined for the large majority of patients.
Doctors, of course, should focus on medicines and conditions, but they also need to think of the patient holistically, taking into account their lifestyle and looking at the complete picture of health. Psychology is an important element here, especially when it comes to understanding behavioral triggers and habits.
I would also recommend social media as an important channel. Trusted doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and pharmacists could be making far more of this tool, using their knowledge and influence to communicate good advice to patients using tools that they actually use. It’s a different world out there now.
However, I should emphasize that good communication with patients is something that is not just important for telemedicine: all medical professionals must be aware that speaking clearly with patients saves lives. According to a recent study, poor communication was a factor in 1,744 patient deaths and has cost over $1.7 billion in malpractice settlements nationally over the last five years.
That is a shocking number for something so eminently avoidable. Although it is quite the macabre note to end on, I think it emphasizes my point well: improving communication in all aspects of healthcare is a topic for the here and now.
Agreed. Thank you for your time today Nisreen. As always, it had been a pleasure learning from you, and I look forward to the next chat!