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Linguistics in healthcare: Why it matters

By: Lydia L. Kim, Digital Content Editor

MK Hedrick is a former colleague of mine who works in healthcare market research. When we worked together, we were tasked with trying to understand the ins and outs of different online disease communities for our clients.

Our research would be used to better understand what challenges members of a specific disease community face on a daily basis, questions they have about their diagnoses, and insight into the interactions they have with healthcare providers (HCPs). Our clients would take these insights, and through a personalized marketing plan, create education or initiatives to help mitigate some of these challenges.

MK and I are both trained linguists, and our experience with the subject amplified the outcomes of our research so that our clients had a more scientific understanding of the community’s language.

To give an example of the types of projects we worked on and what outcomes our analyses led to, I’ll share a bit about one project in particular which had very meaningful impacts in the targeted community. I worked with a client to understand the atopic dermatitis (AD), a severe form of eczema, community. My research utilized my linguistics background to analyze how patients, caregivers, HCPs, and advocacy groups defined the AD diagnosis. The data revealed that each one of these groups had a different definition of AD, which ultimately caused confusion when trying to communicate with one another, and even more difficulty in finding appropriate education and resources on the condition. Our client chose to work directly with influential HCPs and advocacy groups, who were identified in the research, to standardize the definition. This standardization process created more efficiency when discussing the condition and the patients’ ability to find resources.

The experience I had working in healthcare market research showed me how important language is in all types of disease communities, and not only for patients and caregivers, but for HCPs as well. In this interview, I aim to highlight MK and the work she does, but also showcase how the field of linguistics plays a part in modern healthcare.

American Nurse: Hello, MK! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us.

MK: I’m excited to answer them!

I would love if you could give our readers a brief overview of the types of research you did during your undergrad and graduate programs and how that research led you to your current position.

MK: I have a background in linguistics and worked in a phonetics lab throughout graduate school. Initially, I focused a lot on dialects, specifically dialects in the southeast United States. I love dialects and think learning about them is fascinating, so it was very fun to study. When I was studying dialects, I also used a lot of research methodologies that helped me study communication at a broader level. I still use a lot of those methods to study communication between healthcare professionals and patients today.

Could you describe the work you currently do with healthcare market research?

MK: Right now, I’m a research manager for a company that focuses on the experiences of healthcare professionals. I’m responsible for conducting research that asks nurses and doctors about their perceptions and feelings of their day-to-day experiences, and then try to find solutions to any of the problems they might be experiencing. Are there any conversations that are hard to have with patients? Are there any ways to make those conversations easier? I use a variety of research methods to do this, like surveys, interviews and focus groups, ethnographies, and user experience testing on websites that physicians and nurses use.

How has your background in linguistics helped you with this type of work?

MK: I use linguistics every day! A lot of our research focuses on how to make  communication better and easier for everyone involved at an office visit. Sometimes, that means trying to find the right language to explain a difficult concept to patients. Other times, it means finding out how nurses and doctors are speaking differently about a problem than patients are. If healthcare professionals are using specific terms that patients are having trouble understanding, we want to be able to identify what those terms are and what kind of miscommunication might result.

Linguistics is a field that focuses not just on what words people are using, but also the impact that those words end up having. For that reason, linguistic methods are very useful when we talk about how to make conversations during office visit easier for all parties involved.

Could you describe some research that had broader implication for healthcare providers or nurses specifically? Was any action taken directly involving the healthcare providers?

MK: Recently, I had the chance to work with nurses and doctors to ask what would be helpful to them when discussing a difficult topic that patients found personal and embarrassing. In this particular scenario, we found that nurses and doctors were struggling to have conversations that they felt were productive with patients, often because those patients felt too shy to bring up the symptoms they were experiencing. They wanted something they could use that would make the conversation feel more natural and help their patients feel at ease.

We knew there were ways to make educational materials that would be helpful in easing that discussion, but we really wanted to rely on the experiences of nurses and doctors to tell us what form that information could take. Should it be a printed handout that the nurse gives to the patient? Could it be a poster on the wall? Would it be helpful to have a physical model that the nurse or doctor could point to?

We turned to nurses and doctors to get a better sense of what they wanted to use most in order to make that conversation easier for both them and their patients. Eventually, we’ll go back to our nurses and doctors to find out if that conversation did get any better or easier for them!

Has your research ever touched on specific communication challenges between a specific patient population and nurses or other healthcare providers? If so, can you describe those challenges and steps the healthcare providers took to mitigate the issues?

MK: Oh yes, a lot of our research focuses on breakdowns in communication between healthcare professionals and patients, and then how to solve those breakdowns. It can be hard to explain highly clinical concepts in a short amount of time.

If patients ask why they are taking one medicine and not another, sometimes it is just not feasible to speak at length about the varying methods of action for each possible treatment. In a scenario like that, sometimes it’s most helpful to have tools that are readily available to help support that conversation, such as a handout that explains the differences between GLP-1 and SGLT2 options in diabetes or the pros and cons of injections and pills for multiple sclerosis.

We work with nurses and doctors to find out how best to make those educational materials so that patients can feel confident in how their treatment was chosen specifically for them.

Which aspect about language or linguistics is most impactful for nurses and other healthcare providers to consider when working with their patients?

MK: I think a big one is the importance of educational metaphors. Metaphors and analogies are sticky. They are very memorable to patients! We work with nurses and doctors to come up with explanations for how diseases and illnesses happen and how medicine works to help them in ways that are accurate, but not too technical and overwhelming.

Sometimes a smart metaphor accomplishes a lot more when talking to patients than a long, detailed, and highly clinical explanation would. We have found that metaphors allow doctors and nurses to bypass technical jargon while still building a bridge that lets patients better understand their condition and their medication.

Patients may not need to know the clinical ins and outs of what an “agonist” is when they ask how their particular medication works. Despite that, patients can still have a better understanding of how their medicine is supposed to work when their care team is able to explain that their medicine works like a key that unlocks specific doors in their body that allow certain molecules to do their jobs.

We work with healthcare professionals to find the best way for them to consistently and easily explain conditions and medicines in a way that benefits their patients. The key to a good educational metaphor is that it helps patients feel confident in their care.

In your research experience, has there been any common themes in which patients describe their linguistic interactions with their doctors and nurses? Which aspects of these interactions should know?

MK: Well, a big theme is feeling rushed! Everyone involved feels the pressure of how quickly an office visit moves. Nurses in particular have the difficult task of having to gather a lot of information about the patient very quickly, which can be very stressful. When we discuss ways to overcome communication breakdowns in the office visit, we always try to be mindful of the fact that there is just not enough time to explain absolutely everything fully and perfectly 100% of the time. That is why communication research is so important. We’re trying to find ways to make hard conversations easier and take off some of the pressure of what can be a very fast-moving interaction.

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