It’s probably been a while since you learned what a sphygmomanometer was, or that a frequent flier is more than someone who travels a lot. But there was a time when your brain wasn’t quite so filled with the jargon and acronyms of your profession: a time when you spoke like a regular person and people easily understood you. It’s worth harkening back to that time now and again because as a neurologist, you arguably have even more important things to say now. Your patients need to understand you—their health depends on it.

The unfortunate truth is that health literacy in America is low. According to the CDC, 90 percent of adults struggle with unfamiliar, jargon-filled health information, and that translates into “higher than necessary morbidity and mortality.” The US Department of Health and Human Services states:

Over a third of U.S. adults—77 million people—would have difficulty with common health tasks, such as following directions on a prescription drug label or adhering to a childhood immunization schedule using a standard chart.”

With your breadth of medical knowledge, your regular contact with patients, and the fact that you were once a non-jargoned English speaker, you are in a unique position to help build health literacy.

Doctor talking with patient

If you are ready to get started, you can begin your efforts with this Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit, developed by the Department of Health and Human Services. This guide offers 21 tools to help you implement a health literacy action plan in your practice.

If you aren’t quite ready to jump that deeply into the pool, the CDC offers six online health literacy courses. Or, if you just have a spare hour, watch this video of Dr. Rima Rudd, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explaining health literacy.

Whether office-wide or face-to-face in the exam room, calling on a few universal communication strategies you already have at hand can go a long way.

Use analogies, metaphors and similes

We all turn to metaphors, similes, and analogies from time to time to help explain difficult concepts. They can help boil an unfamiliar concept down and make it relatable by comparing it to something familiar. This can be a big help in articulating medical concepts. In their paper Analogies in medicine: valuable for learning, reasoning, remembering and naming, Pena et. al. review the uses and benefits of this cognitive tool.

Patient talking with doctor while they look at tablet together

Have your patient explain things back to you

Sometimes you see a patient’s eyes glaze over and it is clear that they haven’t understood what you’ve just said. Other times they nod and it seems like they got it. The latter happens even when there is confusion because, according to these researchers, patients can be embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand.

For this reason, it is good practice to routinely ask your patients to explain things back to you. A patient might not be completely honest if you only ask a yes or no question. An explanation will be much more revealing about how much they actually understood.

As a neurologist in clinical practice, you are on the front lines in the battle against health illiteracy. It’s a big problem but the solutions don’t have to be onerous. There are a lot of people across this nation working on improving health literacy. Join them and make use of the work they have already done. Or, simply take a minute to remember that you were a novice once and use the skills you already have.