The language of health care

Awhile back, I wandered into an Internet discussion about the use of the word “non-compliant” to describe patients who didn’t follow the doctor’s instructions or take their medications as directed.

Don’t use that word anymore; the correct and less judgmental term is “non-adherent,” one person wrote.

A home health nurse shot back: She’d been using the term “non-compliant” for years, there was nothing wrong with it and she wasn’t about to change, thankyouverymuch.

Health care has a language of its own. Not just the technical words, although there are plenty of them. No, this language consists of ordinary words used in ways that convey certain shades of meaning. Sometimes patients are confused by it, sometimes they’re offended, and sometimes it subtly reinforces the paternalism and power imbalance that have historically existed between health care professionals and their patients.

Were your test results “negative”? Breathe a sigh of relief, because negative results in most cases are positive news for the patient. If the doctor notes that your symptoms are “unimpressive,” it’s not meant to be denigrating, it just means you’re having symptoms that aren’t severe or pronounced. That abbreviation in your chart that says “s.o.b.” doesn’t indicate what you think it does; it just denotes that you’re having shortness of breath.

As you venture farther into this terrain, it gets trickier. Why, for instance, do patients “deny” having chest pain or whatever other symptoms they don’t have? (One of my newsroom colleagues says that whenever she hears this term, she pictures a conversation that goes something like this: “You have chest pain!” “No, I don’t!” “Yes, you do!”)

What is an “incompetent” cervix, and what kind of value judgment does this term imply?

Does it matter what words we use? Are they just a neutral collection of letters and syllables with no deeper meaning? Or is the language of health care more than this?

As patients become more engaged in their care and the doctor-patient relationship becomes more of a partnership and less of a dictatorship, the language has correspondingly come under greater scrutiny. In this brave new world, do doctors issue “orders,” or do they provide “instructions”? Do they talk about collaboration or do they make all the decisions?

The whole debate over the use of the word “compliant” illustrates the extent to which the sands have been shifting. Although the term is still frequently used, critics point to its connotations: obedient, submissive, acquiescent, yielding, docile. In short, not the words many people would like to see associated with the doctor-patient relationship. The term is increasingly being replaced by “adherent,” which sounds vaguely like it might have something to do with duct tape but at least doesn’t appear to carry some of the same emotional baggage as its predecessor.

It might seem like political correctness run amok. But words often do matter, and they can influence our thinking in ways we might not realize. For instance, it’s common to record the reason for the patient’s visit to the doctor as the “chief complaint” - a rather psychologically loaded term, since the patient might not literally be complaining and might in fact be reluctant to complain in the truest sense of the word. Does the use of this word create subtle attitudes about patients and perhaps consign them to an unwanted role?

What about the common practice of referring to the patient’s current history of ailments, issues and chronic conditions as a “problem list”? Does this invite doctors and nurses to view patients as a collection of problems in need of fixing? Does the focus on “problems” make them overlook other aspects of the patient’s health in which he or she is doing well?

What does it mean when the patient “didn’t tolerate the procedure”, and whose fault does this imply?

I’m not sure whether these terms ought to be replaced, or what we could replace them with. There’s no vocabulary police in health care, after all, and no real consensus on what the best words should be. In any case, it’s a moving target. The debate over “compliant” vs. “adherent” isn’t going to go away any time soon, and within a few more years the favored term could drop out of favor in exchange for something better.

Occasionally, however, attention to language results in real change. At one time, patients who were in pain were said to “complain of pain.” It’s a phrase that can be freighted with emotion and value judgment, however, and health care providers began to realize that many patients with treatable pain weren’t speaking up because they didn’t want to appear to be complaining. With heightened awareness of this issue, providers began using the term “reporting pain” instead. This more neutral language is now so widespread that it has become rare, at least in the professional literature, to find references anymore to patients “complaining of pain.”

And occasionally patients themselves put the medical community on notice that some language is unacceptable. Karen Parles, executive director of the Lung Cancer Online Foundation, fired off a letter a few years ago to oncology specialists about the commonly used phrase “the patient failed chemotherapy.” She wrote:

Have the patients really “failed” when chemotherapy drugs do not work? Of course they haven’t. So why use a phrase that implies blame?

… This unfortunate convention is used in the medical literature, at professional conferences, and not surprisingly, in the clinic. It is common for oncologists to tell patients that they “failed drug X.” By telling patients they failed to respond to treatment, doctors may increase the guilt that many patients already struggle with as a result of their cancer diagnoses. For others, like me, it becomes an annoying refrain. At minimum, it puts emotional distance between doctor and patient and undermines the doctor-patient relationship. Just imagine under the same circumstances if the patient said to the doctor, “You failed to give me the right drug to treat my cancer.” The question isn’t who failed, but what failed.

Dr. Bruce Chabner, the editor-in-chief of The Oncologist, responded with an apology and a thank-you to Parles for pointing out “the all-important use and impact of our words.”

“I assure her that I have expunged ‘that phrase’ from my vernacular… and I urge my colleagues to do likewise,” he said.

This post originally appeared on Nov. 4, 2009.

5 things to think about before you pink

October is upon us, and the pink reminders that this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month seem more prolific than the autumn leaves scattering from the trees.

Here’s another reminder: Consumer beware. Just because a product is advertised with the familiar pink ribbon doesn’t mean your purchase is making a meaningful contribution on behalf of breast cancer research or charity.

From the Think Before You Pink website, here are five things to look for beyond the pink hype:

1. Will your purchase of a product actually result in a donation to the cause? The use of the pink ribbon symbol is unregulated. Some companies use it on their products to show support but their contributions aren’t tied to purchases of pink-ribbon products. In other cases, the consumer has to do something further, e.g. sending in labels or boxtops, before the donation is realized. Sometimes the company also caps its donations, yet continues to sell the product to consumers who are unaware that their purchases are no longer being used to support the cause.

2. Is the company transparent about how much it donates from its pink-ribbon proceeds?

3. Who gets the money? Pledges that your purchase will help support “programs” or “services” for women with breast cancer are vague. Statements that your purchase will help promote “awareness” of breast cancer are vaguer yet. Buyers who sincerely want to make a difference should know where their money is going and whether it’s going to a credible organization.

4. What will the money be used for? Will it be spent on services that directly benefit women with breast cancer? Will it make a dent in screening, treatment or prevention? Or is mostly being spent on administrative costs and marketing?

5. Are the company’s pink-ribbon products and promotions in line with your personal values? For instance, are you OK with pink “limited edition” bags of potato chips? How do you feel about Booze for Boobs pub crawls, an event that sprung up in some communities in the U.S. a couple of years ago? (The organizers seem to be unaware that excess alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.) How do you feel about supporting the cause by buying pink-ribbon cosmetics that may contain potentially harmful chemicals?

Think Before You Pink, a project of Breast Cancer Action, offers this final advice: If it looks like your money will do little, if anything, to support breast cancer programs, or if the company isn’t transparent, reconsider and make a direct donation instead to the charity of your choice.

Making friends with the patient portal

I’ll disclose this up front: I’m a big fan of the concept of allowing patients online access to their medical information through a patient portal. Family members who live in the metro area have been using portals for a few years, and now this feature is available locally too.

Patient portals are promoted as a tool to help patients become more involved and engaged in their care. It’s still a little early to know whether this actually is the outcome; portals just haven’t been around long enough to build up a strong body of evidence in their favor.

At the very least, though, they make it easier for people to find out their lab results, double-check their prescription medication list, etc., by simply logging into their personal account. No need to make phone calls or leave messages. No waiting for results to arrive by snail mail. And seriously, is there anything more annoying than to be told only that your lab results or X-ray were “normal”? Show me the numbers, please.

Not that there aren’t naysayers. Many folks haven’t been very impressed by their experience with patient portals – for example, health communication guru Steve Wilkins, who recently was introduced to the portal offered by his doctor’s practice and was underwhelmed. He can send messages to the staff and request appointments and prescription refills but apparently not much else. “Asking is certainly different than doing in my book,” he reflected. “How the heck is this supposed to make me feel engaged?”

I’ve heard other complaints that some portals are very restrictive in how patients are allowed to use them, thereby limiting the benefits.

A couple of thoughts: First, patient portals won’t instantly remove all the obstacles in doctor-patient communication. They’re a tool, and their success will partly depend on people’s willingness and ability to use them as intended. I think there’s going to be a learning curve before the benefits become apparent. In the meantime, everyone needs to be somewhat patient and not demand results like, right now.

Second, simply offering a patient portal doesn’t automatically mean it has value, as Wilkins points out. Practices that only allow a handful of non-interactive features on their portal will probably be disappointed when few patients sign up or actively use the portal… but they really shouldn’t be surprised.

My prediction is that engagement will be highest when the portal 1) has multiple features that appeal to patients and create a useful tool for health care self-management; and 2) is actively promoted by medical practices as something their patients ought to try.

Patient portals might sound like nothing more than a new technological spin on the exchange of information that has always taken place between doctors and patients. But the reality is that they’re helping shift the fulcrum of engagement toward the patient. Our medical information was always available to us but it was often presumed that it didn’t have to be shared unless we asked to see it. Now the presumption is that of course our information will be shared without first having to ask for it. See the difference?

Dumbing it down

When the handouts from the hospital downplay, gloss over or don’t even mention the potential for bad things to happen, a patient can be excused for feeling totally blindsided to find out a complication is serious enough to require surgery.

How do I know? Because it happened to me. And to say I felt misled by the vague, sugar-coated generalities contained in the patient literature is an understatement.

The focus on health literacy is both welcome and necessary. Far too much about health care is arcane, difficult to understand and not explained well to patients, especially those who have difficulty reading or for whom English is not their primary language. But there’s another side to this issue: the risk that in the drive to simplify health information for patients, we’re going too far.

I’m not the first person to ask this question. I’ve heard the same concern from health care professionals who worry that the basic facts, while important to convey, aren’t always enough to truly arm patients with what they need to know.

Dumbing it down has consequences. At best, it can confuse patients about what their symptoms or side effects might mean and what, if anything, they should do about it. At worst, it can put them in harm’s way.

More than this, it has the overall effect of lowering the bar for what’s expected of the patient. “Don’t dumb down diabetes!” declares blogger Allison Blass at Lemonade Life. She describes a recent focus group meeting during which she shared the data methods she uses to help manage her insulin for her type 1 diabetes, only to be told, “You seem very tech-savvy but what about the average diabetic?” Her response:

Understanding diabetes is a daily battle. This disease doesn’t make a bit of sense most of the time and I will be the first person to admit that I don’t always do what I am supposed to do. But I don’t understand how providing someone with less information about their health is supposed to help them? And I don’t understand why it is such an extraordinary thing to encourage people to read, ask questions, be educated and know all they can about their disease.

One aspect of this is the rather patronizing don’t-you-worry tone that often pervades the handouts and written information for patients. This faux reassurance, with its dumbing down of patients’ emotions, can be very misleading. It can give patients the impression that their symptoms are no big deal, and it can leave them unaware or unsure of when something is serious enough to need medical attention. It also puts patients at a serious disadvantage in communicating with the doctor and ensuring that a complication or side effect is being appropriately addressed. Rare complications are, by definition, rare, but they do happen, and patients are ill served by information that condescends to them rather than enables them to recognize when to take action.

In the bigger picture, dumbing it down can blur or erase many of the nuances that need to be part of the public discussion. A prime example: the attitude that screening for disease has preventive value and is invariably beneficial. On some level, and in some circumstances, this is entirely true. But screening and prevention are not the same thing. Moreover, screening has limitations; it’s not 100 percent accurate, it doesn’t necessarily change the course or outcome of a disease, and sometimes it results in patients undergoing unnecessary treatment.

Understanding this could help Americans have more realistic beliefs about what screening can – and can’t – accomplish, and might help them make health care decisions that are more informed. This level of understanding won’t happen, however, if the discussion stays mired in generalities sheerly for the sake of keeping it simple.

To be fair, most health care professionals, at least the ones with whom I’m acquainted, prefer it when patients participate in their care and make an effort to be educated. But many of them also struggle with where to draw the line. If you tell patients too much, will they be overwhelmed? Will information about potential complications or side effects scare patients away from necessary treatment? Or will people just tune it out?

Not everyone wants, or is able, to handle the same amount of information. It’s a genuine challenge – maybe even impossible – for health care professionals to find out and keep track of each patient’s preference for knowledge.

This shouldn’t have to mean, however, that we automatically default to the lowest common denominator. Keeping it simple isn’t always the right answer, nor is it always in the patient’s best interests. It’s a lesson some of us have learned the hard way.

This entry was originally published Nov. 3, 2010.

Flipping the clinic

Advocates of patient-centered care talk of “flipping the clinic” to create an environment in which everything, from the sign-in process to how patient-provider conversations are conducted, is designed with the patient experience foremost in mind.

So here’s a really radical thought. What would happen if we took this one step farther and flipped the flip? What if patients also became more mindful of the provider experience and, by extension, more supportive and understanding of their doctor, their nurse and others involved in their care? What might we gain as a result?

It’s a novel idea raised  by Natasha Gajewski, a patient advocate and innovator who recently blogged about attending a Flip the Clinic symposium hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and hearing some of the success stories about patients who were empowered to become full participants in their care. Seeing how rewarding it was for clinicians to help make this happen, Gajewski reflects:

… [J]oy and satisfaction are apparently in short supply amongst care providers, particularly those on the front lines. So I find it curious we focus so much attention on salvaging the wellbeing of the patient, when studies and the emerging crisis in primary care suggest that more attention needs to be given to improving the wellbeing of clinicians.

Then she asks the million-dollar question: “Could patients cure clinician burnout and other problems in our healthcare system?”

In one of those moments of synchronicity, I came across Gajewski’s online posting at the same time I was reading Dr. Danielle Ofri’s new book, “What Doctors Feel,” about the undeniable – and sometimes overwhelming – role of emotion in the practice of medicine. Then, to clinch it, New York Times contributor Dr. Pauline Chen wrote this week about the growing problem of clinician burnout and how to lessen it.

It would be hard to find a health care provider in the U.S. these days who isn’t under tremendous stress at least part of the time. Although stress is inherent in the health care professions, it’s being ratcheted up and up and up by constant change, increasing demands on people’s time and energy, and resources that are becoming ever more strained.

While most Americans are probably aware of this, one has to wonder how well the average person understands the connection between frazzled, exhausted, unhappy clinicians and unsatisfactory patient experiences.

Dr. Chen lays it out for us:

Research over the last few years has revealed that unrelenting job pressures cause two-thirds of fully trained doctors to experience the emotional, mental and physical exhaustion characteristic of burnout. Health care workers who are burned out are at higher risk for substance abuse, lying, cheating and even suicide. They tend to make more errors and lose their sense of empathy for others. And they are more prone to leave clinical practice.

Do patients care? More than a few people might react the same way as one of Dr. Chen’s online readers who called it professional narcissism: “Enough about how physicians and other medical professionals’ lives are so difficult. We all have jobs that are hard to do.”

But I would hope this is a minority view. At its core, health care is about relationships between human beings. It’s hard for the parties to truly engage with each other when one of them is physically and mentally overloaded, frustrated and on the verge of burnout.

This isn’t to say that provider satisfaction should be the sole responsibility of patients. Patients often have enough to handle without also worrying about managing the morale of their health care team.

But patients do have a stake in this, whether they realize it or not. So, to go back to Gajewski’s question: Is there something we can do about it?

Flu shot options: a test of patient engagement?

Talking about the flu vaccine used to be straightforward. But with the proliferation of vaccine options, it has become much more complicated.

It isn’t even accurate anymore to call it a flu “shot”. The old-fashioned shot in the arm has been joined by intradermal and nasal spray versions of the vaccine. There’s now a quadrivalent form of influenza vaccine that protects against four strains instead of the usual three. Vaccines that used to mostly be available at the doctor’s office can now be obtained at community pharmacies, nursing homes, public health agencies, workplaces and even walk-in sites.

To add to this array, flu vaccine is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The nasal spray can only be used among healthy children and younger adults. Ditto for the intradermal version. The new quadrivalent vaccine is thought to be more effective for children than adults.

More options for consumers = better for everyone, right? Well, yes. But here’s another way to look at it: With more choices that may or may not be appropriate for them, people increasingly need to take responsibility for educating themselves with accurate information.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Patient engagement has become the Holy Grail of health care – desired, sought after, and the focus of intense effort by health care organizations. Care tends to be better and more reflective of the patient’s values when people are active participants.

The real question is whether we’re ready for this.

While some folks are eager to be more involved in their care, others need a strong nudge of encouragement. Some don’t really want to be engaged. Others are unable to be fully engaged. Nor can we underestimate how critical it is for people to have good information, the many myths about the flu vaccine – It’ll give you the flu! It’s full of toxins! – being a case in point.

This year’s flu vaccine season in some ways has become a real-world laboratory for the public’s ability to make informed decisions. People will have to ask questions and read the fine print. They’ll need to know which forms of the vaccine are available and which are appropriate for them and their family, and decide accordingly.

Are we up to it? We’ll find out.

Find the CDC flu vaccine guidelines here.

Showing skin: When medical photos get provocative

Picture, if you will, a magazine cover photo of a (presumably) unconscious and mostly nude female patient, one leg raised and the other sprawled sideways, being positioned for surgery by three men in scrubs.

Outpatient Surgery magazine published a photo exactly like this on its cover last month to accompany a story about safe surgical positioning, igniting a barrage of criticism from readers who felt the image was degrading, distasteful, insulting and offensive. (Click here to judge for yourself.)

What were the editors thinking? Nothing, apparently, if we’re to believe editor-in-chief Dan O’Connor, who pennedmea culpa of sorts this month, claiming the blowback “caught us by surprise.”

His rationale: “Anyone who’s been around surgery knows that patients are very frequently left much more exposed than the patient on our cover was.”

Really? Really?

Illustrations for medical articles and public health messages tend to be a sensitive subject. Remember the firestorm over Georgia’s Strong 4 Life childhood obesity campaign? Or the FDA’s failed attempt to add graphic photos to cigarette packages? Or the Minnesota Department of Health’s colonoscopy campaign featuring huge billboards of a backside with pants at half-mast? What one person sees as blunt, refreshing honesty can look to someone else like crass overkill.

Titillation as a sales tactic is nothing new either. But it’s arguably a whole different ethical proposition when this strategy is used to depict the care of patients who are vulnerable, forced to compromise their dignity and control and, in the case of surgery, unconscious and unaware of what’s being done to them.

For the record, the magazine cover photo didn’t strike me as “pornographic,” as one critic accused. But I’d call it deliberately provocative, perhaps even exploitive.

Why the choice of a female patient? Did the three people in scrubs all have to be men? Why her entire anatomy below the waist and not, say, an arm or shoulder? Why an obviously young and slender woman instead of a middle-aged man? And what was up with the double entendre in the tagline’s promise of “maximum exposure” to patient safety tips?

The article itself tackled a serious and important subject. Patients who are sedated, especially for lengthy surgeries, can be at significant risk of developing pressure ulcers that are painful, debilitating and costly to treat. Safe, proper positioning during surgery is one of the keys to avoiding this complication.

But never mind the fact that the patient demographic at greatest risk of pressure ulcers is older adults. Sex sells, so we get a cover photo of a shapely upraised leg instead of one that’s bony and arthritic. In the same manner we get images of mammography featuring one attractive semi-nude young woman after another, even though breast cancer is most prevalent in middle-aged and older women. With all that skin on display, the underlying message can become cheapened and sometimes ultimately lost.

I suppose you could argue that even when medical imagery is tarted up with firm young flesh, it at least has the benefit of depicting something real. After all, not everyone was unhappy with the surgery magazine’s choice of cover photo; one (female) surgical nurse told the editor she thought the patient “was covered appropriately.”

It begs the question, however: Appropriate according to whose definition – the patient or the OR staff?

Tellingly, no one spoke up to say the photo was inaccurate.

To give him his due, Mr. O’Connor recognizes that health care practices long regarded as standard may leave patients feeling exposed and compromised. He writes: “Well, here’s a thought. If we think patients would be uncomfortable with how we treat them when they are anesthetized, then is there something wrong with how we’re treating patients?”

Well, here’s a thought for you, Mr. O’Connor. Why don’t you ask patients themselves? I bet they’d have something to say.

But enough of my opinion. What do readers think?

Medicine’s privilege gap

Have doctors become increasingly removed from the everyday struggles of their patients, especially patients who occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder?

A letter to the editor in the July issue of Academic Medicine raises some thought-provoking questions about a “privilege gap” that’s opening up in medicine.

It starts at the very beginning, with the selection process into medical school, writes Dr. Farzon Nahvi, an emergency medicine resident at New York University’s Bellevue Hospital:

Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges show that over 60% of medical students come from families in the top quintile of household income, with only 20% coming from families who earned in the bottom three quintiles. Similarly, the median family income of American medical students is over $100,000. In other words, the average medical student comes from the upper 15% of America.

This is anything but reflective of the patient population, Dr. Nahvi goes on to explain: “They are all of America: rich, poor and in between.”

And it has an impact, he maintains:

The unfortunate consequence of this is that patients sometimes struggle to be understood by well-meaning but, ultimately, privileged doctors who sometimes cannot relate to patients of other backgrounds.

Being privileged does not necessarily make a physician incapable of understanding the daily lives of his or her patients, of course. And many physicians resent (often rightfully so) the stereotypes that portray them as money-grubbing, golf-playing, Beamer-driving plutocrats who consider themselves above the masses.

Yet the statistics cited by Dr. Nahvi don’t lie. And they’re a problem for a society in which the health gap between the well off and the not so well off has been extensively documented. As Dr. Nahvi points out, how can doctors be aware of the issues their low-income patients face – unable to afford prescription drugs, for instance, or unable to take time off work to get to the pharmacy – when “it often doesn’t occur to the more privileged that such issues even exist”?

If medicine in the U.S. is becoming a bastion of privilege, it’s probably because it increasingly takes privilege to survive the rigors and costs of becoming a doctor.

The cost of a medical education is a significant burden for aspiring doctors; a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges puts the median amount of medical school debt at $170,000 for the Class of 2012 (and this doesn’t include any debt students may have accumulated from their preceding four years of college).

Then there’s the protracted training time to consider: four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school and, at a minimum, three years of residency before doctors actually start earning real money. Once they’ve arrived, they can start acquiring the trappings of an upper-middle-class lifestyle – but this is small comfort to the bright young high-schooler from a low-income family who dreams of being a doctor but lacks the financial wherewithal to even get a foot in the door.

One could also argue that the medical school admission process itself tends to favor students with the “right” kind of background, i.e. those who already possess strong socioeconomic advantages.

So what’s the solution? Dr. Nahvi writes:

The stopgap fix is to better train all students to deal with all types of patients. A true long-term solution, however, is to steer more representative slices of America – individuals from all income levels – into medicine. There are many ideas for how to do this, from special recruitment strategies to arrangements for financial aid. Fundamentally though, for change to occur, admission committees need to recognize the importance of getting more middle- and low-income students into our medical education system.

Doing so won’t be easy, because it’s not just about money. Many other ingredients come into play: a solid grade school and high school education, parents and teachers who encourage careers in medicine and hold aspiring students to high expectations, and even local role models who can show young people that someone like them can successfully become a doctor.

There doesn’t seem to be much public discussion about how to narrow the privilege gap in medicine. Since part of the solution likely will lie at the community level, maybe this needs to change.

Every move you make, the patient is watching you

Patients have a way of hanging onto every nonverbal cue they notice, no matter how small.

Was the doctor frowning as he/she entered the exam room? Did the nurse at the hospital bedside seem harried while checking your vital signs? What was up with that brusque welcome from the receptionist? Was that an eye roll behind your back?

In any setting, body language is a big deal. The fact that people are watching, interpreting and judging, especially when it comes to leaders, is illustrated vividly by New York Times columnist Adam Bryant in his latest piece, “Are You Mad at Me?”

One day a colleague pulled him aside and asked to speak privately with him in the conference room. The question, wrote Bryant, “came out of the blue. ‘Are you mad at me?’”

He goes on to explain:

I was puzzled, but I realized later what was going on. As an editor, I faced a lot of tight deadlines, and I would often have just a short window to get a story into shape for the next day’s paper. I’m guessing I was thinking hard about some story as I walked through the newsroom one day – probably furrowing my brow, my mind a million miles away – when I briefly locked eyes with my colleague, who was startled enough by my body language to later pull me into a conference room to wonder if the air needed to be cleared between us.

Bryant writes, “I learned a memorable lesson that day about how people can read so much into subtle, and often unintended, cues.”

How much more so in health care, where patients often feel vulnerable, needy and at the mercy of a system that may or may not be responsive – and where misinterpreting the cues can have very real consequences.

The literature on the role of body language is varied and fascinating. One study carried out in the Netherlands found that people had a positive physiological response to pictures of happy facial expressions. But they showed signs of higher anxiety in response to facial expressions that were fearful or angry – and their reaction to angry signals was heightened when they were already anxious. Other studies have found people are quicker and more accurate at detecting angry faces than happy faces.

Less is known about the impact of nonverbal cues in the health care setting. For just one example of how body language can influence the doctor-patient interaction, however, consider a study, published last year, that examined the differences in nonverbal communication between white and African-American doctors when talking to older patients.

The study found that white doctors tended to treat all their older patients the same way. But black doctors often gave contradictory nonverbal cues to their white patients – smiling, for example, while crossing their arms or legs.

Other studies have found a similar pattern among female physicians interacting with male patients.

Most of these studies are fairly small and don’t really explore the impact of the doctor’s body language on quality of care or outcomes. Disparities in health care are well known to exist, however, and unconscious social bias can be very difficult to root out and change.

Meanwhile, patients notice these subtle cues and draw their own conclusions, accurately or not.

“How do you say, ‘I don’t give a damn’?” asks Kristin Baird, owner of the Baird Group and a consultant on improving the patient experience.

She relates the experience of accompanying her sick sister to see the doctor. The doctor barged into the exam room, stood with one hand on the door handle and informed her sister there was nothing he could do and that she should go to the hospital.

“Everything about his demeanor, both verbal and nonverbal, screamed: “I don’t give a damn about you. You’re not worthy of my time, so don’t bother me,’” Baird writes. “This was hard enough for me to witness, and I wasn’t the one in need of his care.”

Maybe it wasn’t personal. Maybe the doctor had just had a terrible encounter with the previous patient, or was distracted by a family crisis or suffering from burnout or depression. It leaves a mark, however, and it can become one more piece of baggage for patients to tote around and unpack in their next visit to the health care system.

There seem to be a lot of angry patients these days, and at least some of it stems from the nonverbal cues that shape people’s perceptions of how they’re treated: “The person at the front desk barely made eye contact with me. “The doctor just sat there and looked at the computer.” “The nurse/physical therapist/radiologic technologist seemed in such a hurry.”

One consequence might be heightened anxiety that prevents the patient from communicating honestly and allowing the doctor to reach the right diagnosis. If patients perceive that their participation in their care is met with annoyance or secret eye rolls, they may become frustrated or outright hostile. Perhaps they’ll take the opposite route and decide it’s better to be passive and uninvolved, even if none of these approaches are beneficial to their health.

Like hawks, patients are watching every move their clinician makes and levying their judgment, whether it’s fair and accurate or not.

5 health messages from Angelina Jolie

It’s been more than two weeks since actress Angelina Jolie revealed the bombshell story of her preventive double mastectomy, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the implications.

This was a news item that was hard to miss, given the reaction and commentary it ignited. For those who’ve been out of the loop, here’s the story in a nutshell: Jolie went public with a New York Times essay on May 14, telling her story of recently undergoing a double mastectomy to lower her risk of developing breast cancer. Her mother died at age 56 of ovarian cancer and Jolie herself has the BRCA1 gene, heightening her chances of someday being diagnosed with breast and/or ovarian cancer.

“Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could,” Jolie wrote.

She explained that although the decision wasn’t easy, “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

It’s a compelling personal story but the ensuing reactions made it clear there was much more to it than one woman’s choice. After a lot of reading, I saw these main issues that kept rising to the surface:

1. Genetic testing – helpful or not? Jolie urged women to get tested for the BRCA gene, especially if there’s a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer. What’s left unsaid is that only about 1 percent of women in the U.S. have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. To be sure, genetic testing could help these women weigh their options, but it may not be useful to the population as a whole. For women who test negative for the gene, it might even create a false sense of security, since the vast majority of breast and ovarian cancers are not tied to any obvious risk factors.

Nor is it enough to simply have access to genetic information; people also need guidance to help them make sense of the information and make decisions based on their own values and tolerance of risk.

2. Risk isn’t always perceived accurately. By undergoing a preventive mastectomy, Jolie was able to lower her risk of breast cancer from 87 percent to under 5 percent. But these numbers seem to mostly reflect the odds ratio, i.e. overall likelihood given a specific set of circumstances. They don’t necessarily indicate actual risk. Moreover, even a drastic measure such as a preventive bilateral mastectomy does not lower the risk to zero, nor does it lower the risk of developing other types of cancer.

3. Be careful of the anecdote. Personal stories resonate with people. Jolie put a human face on the ordeal of learning you have the BRCA gene and pre-emptively having both breasts removed. But this is one person’s story; the experience may be quite different for someone else.

Jolie writes that her surgery and breast reconstruction were complication-free. “The results can be beautiful,” she says. No doubt this is the case for some people but it glosses over the possibility of scarring, infection, repeat surgeries and all the other things that can make these procedures anything but beautiful.

4. Surgery to remove healthy body parts, even when heightened risk is present, is a drastic measure. Maybe this speaks to how Americans have been conditioned to fear breast cancer. Some of this fear may be justified. In spite of massive investment in research, treatment options remain limited for metastatic, or widespread, breast cancer. The fact remains, however, that it’s a very aggressive way to try to prevent disease.

Interestingly, studies going back at least a decade indicate that most women who undergo a preventive mastectomy are happy with their decision and feel less anxious about their risk for cancer. Unfortunately some of the public discussion about Jolie’s story has become muddled over the distinction between preventive mastectomy and mastectomy once cancer is diagnosed. These are two different things that cannot accurately be weighed on the same scale.

5. Individual medical decisions are exactly that – individual choices. I wouldn’t judge Angelina Jolie for her choice. Only she can determine what level of risk she’s willing to live with and what she’s willing to do to reduce that risk. For someone else, the decision might be entirely different.

The crux seems to be whether patients have accurate, realistic information and a good understanding of their personal values and preferences – a principal that applies in countless other health decisions, from whether to take a prescription drug to making end-of-life decisions. Maybe by sharing her story, Jolie has contributed to moving along a complicated conversation that needs to happen.