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Correct Misinformation Through Acknowledgment, Understanding, and Education

By Patricia Chaney January 14, 2016 Posted in: Patient Care , Article

The balance of power in a doctor's office visit is changing as the relationship shifts to more of a partnership with patients. Your patients have a lot more information available to them these days, whether from health websites or pharmaceutical commercials.

In many ways, this shift is great. You can have in-depth conversations with your patients about their health, improve their adherence to treatment plans, help them manage costs, and more. But sometimes patients come in with information from the wrong sources or with a misunderstanding of their condition. How can you combat this misinformation without insulting your patients?

Uncover the Source of Misinformation

From a self-diagnosis courtesy of WebMD to holistic cures from homeopaths to vaccine information from Jenny McCarthy, you have a big teaching job ahead of you. Your patients may come in asking for a specific prescription, refusing to undergo a certain type of treatment, or requesting a natural remedy to treat a serious illness. After silently shouting "No!" in your head, calmly shift the conversation toward understanding what information your patients have and where they got it.

Ask questions before jumping in to correct them. Some patients' cultures highly value the opinions of elders, and if you jump in too soon, you may unintentionally insult their family. For others, religious values may be influencing their decisions.

You may wonder how people can believe some things or why they are so confident in an incorrect diagnosis. One report published in the Association for Psychological Science (APS) found that misinformation sticks when it conforms to what people already think or believe. To use the example posed by the report, hearing repeatedly that vaccines cause autism will make someone more likely to believe an article that mentions pseudoscientific research linking the two.

Remember, This Is an Educational Opportunity

With ever-shorter office visits and higher costs of seeing a doctor, your patients don't get to spend much time hearing your side of the story. In many cases, you're not their first source of health information.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of expectant mothers found that those who didn't plan to follow the traditional vaccine schedule received their information from the Internet or family and friends. Many of the soon-to-be moms said they had not received details on safety and effectiveness from their pediatricians.

In most interactions, your patients have done their research because they care about their health or that of their family, and they want to understand their treatment options. In the case of Internet misdiagnosis, pull credible articles and present patients with correct information while acknowledging the fact that many conditions have similar symptoms.

Accommodate patients' cultural beliefs and preferences when possible. If a patient wants to treat a cold with a topical application of oregano oil, which won't interfere with current medications, acknowledge the use and move on. By showing acceptance of or respect for the patient's choice to use natural remedies, he or she will be more likely to talk to you about these remedies in the future when they may actually affect medications and other treatment options.

Tips to Help Patients Get It Right

One of the best things you can do is to acknowledge your patients' efforts and move forward with any information they have right. Be understanding of any personal beliefs that contribute to their acceptance of incorrect information.

The APS suggests focusing on the facts you want your patients to understand, rather than trying to debunk myths. Keep your message simple and brief, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

It may take more than one visit to get through to some patients. In the meantime, point them to reputable websites for health information, and encourage them to look up information on your diagnosis or suggested treatment options. All your patients can benefit from your narrative and having an arsenal of credible sources to research now and for future concerns.

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