Retaining and understanding medical information.
A doctor’s visit can sometimes be stressful. Patients receive large amounts of information at a single medical consultation and even if patients would be medical professionals (which most aren’t) it would be challenging to retain and understand all of the information that your doctor shared with you.
Retaining medical information
Studies have shown the more information presented during a consultation, the more likely a patient will be unable to correctly recall all the information provided.
Retaining information from an oncology consultation can be especially difficult. If we have to inform a patient “you have cancer” this sometimes means that some patients are not really able to listen any further. If your doctor then says “we can treat this well, and your chances are excellent”, the patients’ attention span is already exceeded and no further information such as treatment plans can be processed.
Sometimes as doctors we have to break bad news and patients with a poorer prognosis have been shown to recall even less information after bad news is delivered. Studies have also shown older people are less able to recall information successfully, with recollection declining with age. Recollection can be affected by the complexity of language used, thus information given in simple terms can supposedly be better remembered.
Understanding medical terminology and informed consent
Informed consent refers to the decision-making process where the patient and doctor engage in a dialogue about the recommended treatment plan, the associated consequences, harms, benefits, risks, and alternative options. Informed consent is important so that the patient can know what to expect during and after treatment. Informed consent is used both in a clinical setting (before an operation) and research settings (to participate in a clinical trial).
Patients will be asked to sign a document indicating they have been informed, they do understand and do provide consent for the procedure or for a research trial. Some studies have found that patients are unable to recall or do not understand informed consent processes. Patients may fear questioning or disappointing their doctor, but this is not the case.
Here are some tips I normally ask patients to remember that will help to retain critical information:
- Whenever possible, bring a family member or a friend along to the consultation. This is another pair of eyes and ears that will help understand better. It also allows you to both discuss the information presented together after the appointment.
- Sometimes we think about questions to ask. However, on the spot we forget them. Take notes of your questions and bring them with you.
- Write down the doctors’ answers so that you can review them later. Document your diagnosis, recommended treatment plan, rehabilitation and consequence of no treatment.
- Ask if you can talk to someone who has undergone similar surgery. At my practice, we can help you get in contact with other patients in a similar situation as you.
- At the end of the consultation summarise back what you heard during the consultation, and confirm the next steps.