Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Lighting a Fireball Under Informed Consent
The experts and their PowerPoints gathered in the nation’s capital. The purpose was to advance an important effort by the Institute of Medicine to improve communication and understanding between doctors and patients and researchers and subjects. No simple task, this.
Best practices were discussed, and one received special attention. Alas, amid the downpour of information during Monday’s daylong webcast of the Institute of Medicine’s workshop on informed consent and health literacy, I seem to have missed this most important of best practices.
I did hear that this particular best practice “increased comprehension better than the other modalities.”
And perhaps that’s why I missed it. I don’t speak in modalities, and that phrase highlighted for me the potholed intersection of informed consent and health literacy. Further complicated by language barriers, informed consent becomes a foreign concept in a time one presenter called “the wild west of data.”
The Institute of Medicine workshop was impressive, informative, perhaps even visionary, and concluded with a call from Dr. Michael Paasche-Orlow, professor of medicine at Boston University, not for simple tweaks but for a course change in scientific and medical culture -- “from persuasion to pedagogy.” (There’s one of those words again; I believe he meant a change from pleading to teaching.)
In particular, this course change demands attention to improved communication skills, so that when a doctor like Jeremy Sugarman of Johns Hopkins tells his patient she has “fibroids in the uterus,” and she hears “fireballs in the uterus,” he’ll know it and correct it.
Overcoming such language barriers, said Dr. Alicia Fernandez of UC San Francisco, “will improve informed consent for all patients.”
According to Fernandez, 21 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home, and she cited a University of Washington study in presenting a troubling snapshot of medicine as practiced through interpreters. More hopefully, she said, when physicians are bilingual, “communication is more likely to be patient-centered.”
Sugarman cited his patient’s “fireballs in the uterus” to humorous effect. Another patient heard him describe the “insensitive care unit,” and a diagnosis once was quoted back to him as “sick-as-hell anemia.”
But a malaprop is only a problem if the doctor doesn’t know he or she has been misunderstood. If the doctor knows, a discussion and better understanding might follow. And even, perhaps, truly informed consent.
Even among scientists and medical professionals, the obligations and purposes of informed consent are not universally clear, in part because they are not always the same. Consent is better understood as a process than a form, and it differs greatly for a patient than for a research participant (for whom there may be no expected benefit from what is being consented to). And consent forms are full of legalese.
“I have a lot of problem with the writing (in consent forms),” said Chris Trudeau of the Michigan-based Thomas M. Cooley Law School, whose PowerPoint included the before and after of a consent document. It was indecipherable in its original form, significantly more accessible following his surgical removal of polyps and the like. “Lawyers are not good at plain language. We’re good at protecting our clients, but lawyers don’t think about patients understanding.”
The workshop itself neglected patients. Notably missing were patient and community perspectives, but to the credit of the members of the roundtable, and their chair, Dr. George Isham, they won’t long be absent from this process.
“What I see missing in this room are patients,” said Dr. Kenneth Saag of University of Alabama-Birmingham, “and people with a high school education or less, and there’s not as much diversity here as we’re dealing with.”
Sandra Crouse Quinn, a professor at the University of Maryland, noted that institution’s effort to address low participation in research by people of color via the program Building Trust Between Minorities and Researchers. “Minorities increasingly are willing to participate in research,” she said, “but they’re not participating.”
“A lot of us are too close to these issues,” Isham said toward the workshop’s end, “and don’t see the forest for the trees.”
With patient and community perspectives, the focus might improve.
See more about the workshop here.
By Paul McLean at 6:57 AM