The Ephemeral Nature of Patient-Provider Consultations
I have seen many examples of ephemeral art: the chalk artist whose work will be washed away; the graffiti artist who uses mud instead of spray paint; and the Washington Monument’s face lift with specially designed scaffolding and draping. Ephemeral art is described as being transient and the fleeting, with no physical remnants (other than photographs).
A consultation has an ephemeral nature as well, with the physical remnants being doctor’s notes. Only rarely do patients have access to these, one exception being the OpenNotes© Project at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center which, according to a description, will “evaluate the impact on both patients and physicians of sharing the comments and observations made by physicians after each patient encounter.” Tom Delbanco, MD, anticipates this will improve patient recall and transform the doctor-patient relationship.
This may change what doctors write since they know that patients might read their notes. It may help patients with comprehension and recall, which have been shown to be reduced especially with a new diagnosis, and hopefully with adherence as well. There may be unanticipated results.
Certainly one of the most common ways to increase recall of a consultation is to increase the number of people there. I saw this first-hand as a patient advocate. Some of the responses, in comments and emails, to Why I Became Interested in Health Literacy, suggest ways of capturing a consultation with audio or video. There are clear advantages to this for patients who can then listen as many times as needed following the meeting, although the immediate opportunity to ask questions is lost. But, like a doctor who may write notes differently knowing they are available to the patient, a recording can change the nature of a consultation.
Knowing that OpenNotes© is new and that the other suggestions might be hard to implement, I asked some colleagues about their experiences with capturing what takes place during a consultation.
Some patients capture the instructions and the keywords. Tania Schlatter, a graphic designer, said her strategy is to “make them write it down for me. For example, my son has allergies and I made an appointment with the RN. She rattled off so much stuff I made her write it down for me. It was a messy scrawl on a bunch of stickies but that’s my reference now.”
Gilles Frydman, founder of ACOR.org, said that health literacy skills are no different in France than in the US but that “French doctors all the time record summaries of the conversations” for their patients. He went on to say, “They end up knowing the patients infinitely better than the average US doc using many times more technology. And the French patients are not more health literate than their US counterparts. Good health care is personal; technology should have enhanced that fact, not replaced it.”
Finally, I spoke to Paul S., who said, “The medical people I’ve worked with lately have been pretty good about writing down essential details such as over-the-counter drug names or suggested things to do or not do. Sometimes they have standard handouts that they print off on demand. That said, it would be really interesting to experience the OpenNotes process to compare what I think I got from the conversation with what the practitioner intended to convey. I don’t have the sense that I’ve missed anything from my consultations, but then that’s the point – I wouldn’t know! I have on occasion obtained a physician’s notes about tests or diagnoses, and have wished for someone to interpret the medical jargon. These are notes intended for other medical professionals, so the jargon is appropriate for that purpose. The interpretation of such notes for me might need to be, say, 3 times as many words because I know a fair bit about human biology, but it could easily be 10 or more times as many words for someone with less knowledge. And I know people for whom no amount of interpretation would be enough – they don’t want to understand anything, they just want the bottom line.”
My own recent experience with poison ivy (for the first time) was that my recall was not aided by husband, who had accompanied me to the nurse practitioner, but it helped me when I was frustrated. He repeated to me what she said: “It will get worse before it gets better” and “Nothing will make it go away faster, just reduce the symptoms.” His repetition helped me through a long two weeks.
It’s easy to reflect on the impact of changes: with the demise of Marcus Welby-like home visits, doctors could see more patients but could not see their home environments; and patients were in a much less comfortable environment, possibly impacting their health literacy skills due to the discomfort of being in a waiting room or being in an examining room in a paper gown. With all the technology available for every other aspect of our lives, and for healthcare in particular, there is no technological approach in practice that I know of that captures a consultation. It will be fascinating to see the results of OpenNotes© and mechanisms to give patients more access to health records. While ephemeral art changes the viewer’s reaction, knowing its transient nature, there seem to be few benefits to the ephemeral nature of consultations.
[Note: I just came across Amber J. Tresca’s Get the Most from Your Doctor’s Appointment, which recommends bringing paper to a doctor’s appointment to use for taking notes.]