Don't Forget What the Doctor Tells You

Many patients don't remember physicians' instructions once they leave the office

THURSDAY, May 1, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- While you might not recall everything your doctor tells you, you're pretty confident you remember most of the information. Right?

Probably not, new research contends. Most patients forget as much as 80 percent of what their doctor tells them as soon as they leave the clinic, says a study in the May issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

And nearly half the information they say they do remember, they remember incorrectly, says the Utrecht University study. With the trend towards shorter hospital stays and more outpatient care, it's essential that patients remember this information so they're fully understand their treatment options.

Study author Dr. Roy Kessels explains why patients forget crucial medical information:

  • Old age. As you age, your ability to remember episodic and unstructured information, including medical advice and test results, worsens.
  • Preconceptions. Patients are likely to forget or misinterpret medical information if it doesn't agree with their personal theories about illness. It's easier to remember entirely new information than it is to remember something that challenges existing ideas.
  • Stress. Anxiety causes what's called attentional narrowing, a state where the brain can focus only on the most frightening statements. So, when a doctor tells a patient he or she has cancer, that person is unlikely to remember much else from that conversation.
  • Structure and importance. Patients are more likely to remember the first statements they hear and are able to recall specific information better than general information. Structured, logical information will help patients remember better as long as doctors state first what the structure will be.
  • Spoken words. The more information given by a doctor, the less the patient will remember, especially if it's spoken information, rather than written information. Some hospitals have found that patients given spoken instructions remember only 14 percent correctly while those given information in the form of pictographs remember 80 percent correctly.

Kessels says doctors need to use simple, specific instructions and provide patients with the most important facts first. Spoken information needs to be backed up with written or visual material.

More information

The Journal of the American Medical Association has a patient education page.

Robert Preidt

Robert Preidt

Published on May 01, 2003

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