Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip
April 2014

Helping Patients Problem-Solve

The more stories I hear from family and friends about medical mishaps, the more convinced I am that patients need yet another skill – the ability to figure out what to do in unexpected or unfamiliar situations. Here are my musings about how professionals can help patients independently problem-solve. 

  • Appreciate that patients will have “oops” moments in self-care. Perhaps a patient forgets to take a dose of her medicine. And when she remembers, then decides it best to take a double dose. Health professionals can help by talking ahead of time with patients about what to do in such situations. Include this in your written instructions, too. If you anticipate that patients will have trouble remembering when to do certain tasks, suggest helpful tools such as a phone alarm. To problem-solve after an “oops” moment, make a list of people to contact and places to call should the unplanned happen.
  • Help patients know the difference between routine and serious. A while ago I had shoulder surgery. Everything was unfamiliar since I never had surgery before. The post-operative discharge instructions had lots of important information but I had no frame of reference to judge whether some of my symptoms were routine or serious. You can help by making clear what words like “excessive” mean. And of course, tell patients what to do should they experience these serious symptoms.
  • Guide patients toward credible resources. Patients constantly try to figure out what to do about health. For instance, “Is this symptom so bad that I need to go to the emergency room?” Or, “My cousin (friend, neighbor, coworker, or total stranger) had the same problem and told me that it’s good to ____________. Is that true?” Patients today are bombarded with health information. It’s likely that only some of this information is accurate and relevant. Help patients make sense of what they hear and read by guiding them toward credible resources. Make it even easier by providing an up-to-date list of websites and organizations that offer unbiased, evidence-based, patient-friendly health information. 
How do you help patients independently problem-solve? Please let me know at

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