On a recent day, I walk into a coffee shop and take my place in line to start off my day with a much-anticipated cup of tea. Though slightly aghast at the length of the wait, I don’t want to tip my cards at my lack of coffeehouse experience, so there I stand.
After 15 minutes, I’m starting to think I’ve been patient enough, but at that point, I’ve invested quite a bit of time that seems too critical to simply dismiss. In addition, no one else seems the least bit perplexed at the dismal pace of the java-preparing procedure. So trying to fit in, and because no one has yet left empty-handed, I recommit to waiting.
Finally, sensing an opportunity at hand, the young lady in front of me springs into action, tearing into her wallet to quickly produce some sort of a frequent coffeehouse customer card that must reap huge rewards. She quickly hands it over and says, “One half-decaf iced grande extra caramel, non-fat macchiato, dash of cinnamon.” Immediately following that bit of prose, she slaps $4.53, exactly, onto the counter, retrieves her freshly punched card, and takes her place in the line just to the left, where people stand yet again, patiently waiting to receive their orders. My keen intellect tells me she has done this before.
Next it’s my turn. I wait to be noticed. Though the employee behind the counter can’t be a day over 17, he must truly understand the power he wields at this juncture in his career. Fully in charge of the rate at which this procedure moves, he will only look in your eyes when he is ready to take your order. It is then, and only then, that you may speak and be heard. This unspoken rule may have existed for years, but this is my first experience. I await my cue. Then he looks.
Quickly, so I don’t lose eye contact, I spout out my order: “Tea.” He continues to look at me, and at that moment it seems as if the ever-present racket of the bean grinders, juicers and blenders comes to an abrupt halt. The rustle of newspapers ceases and I am sure there is an audible gasp. Now I can hear nothing but the sound of my own heartbeat echoing throughout my body as tiny beads of sweat began to form on my forehead. With no card to produce and no idea of the cost, I repeat myself to break the silence: “Tea… just tea, please.” A condescending nod from the boy, obvious disapproval from the patrons, and a feeling of not belonging pervade my soul. I am a coffeehouse outcast.
In an effort to shield my face as I leave the coffeehouse, I quickly take a sip of tea and burn my tongue. Adding insult to injury, the tea is particularly bitter on this day. I hop in the car and head toward the clinic. On the way, I consider what has just occurred. What made me so different from that lady in front of me? She couldn’t have been born with the knowledge that some day, when she was old enough to see over the counter and had some discretionary income, she would be ordering a “one half-decaf iced grande extra caramel, non-fat macchiato, dash of cinnamon.”
Certainly there had been a time in her life when this woman walked into that same coffeehouse with a friend and said, “I’ll have what she’s having,” or, “Just a coffee… small, please.” I take comfort in the thought that all the people who sat there in judgment of me and my lack of coffeehouse ordering skills had waited for this day, when they could return the assault that had been leveled upon them on one dreadful occasion, some time ago. I revel in the thought that there would come a day when I, too, might have such a mental victory.
I consider my qualifications for becoming “one of them.” As an accomplished chiropractor and entrepreneur, certainly I can learn to order coffee. Yet still, I am riddled with doubt. What do they possess that I don’t? What do they do for a living? Where do they go when they leave with coffee in hand? What is the secret ingredient? And then I realize, the answer lies in the same “ingredient” that helped me learn chiropractic or how to surf the web: Interest.
These regular coffeehouse goers are interested in their morning cup of coffee. Someone somewhere along the line had introduced them to coffee and they, seizing the opportunities that arose, decided they wanted a better cup of coffee to start their day. So, almost without even thinking about it, they wake up a half-hour earlier to drive to the coffee shop, wait in line, pay big money and order their coffee. It would be easier not to bother and drink the free stuff at work, but they have their priorities. It matters that much.
This situation arises at a most perfect time. It’s offered me insight that I’ve been looking for. Lately, the profession has been debating the way in which we teach patients about chiropractic and the vertebral subluxation complex. Many chiropractors may have even found themselves worrying about the very length of the words we use, the quantity of syllables, and the number of component parts the explanation contains.
We ask ourselves if patients who come to us who are uninformed about chiropractic could actually take an interest, learn, and then tell others about the vertebral subluxation complex. Should we forget about the terminology we studied for four years all together and instead, pat our patients’ hands while we say, “Let me make this easy for you to understand; Your spine is stuck and I’m going to fix it.”
I believe strongly that this type of condescending approach is what many patients have come to dislike about the standard medical model, and it could be the very behavior that brought them to us in the first place. How much do we incorporate the standard terminology in our explanations to our patients? The answer does not lie in talking to patients like they are chiropractors, or in “dumbing things down” to the Nth degree… the answer lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
The key to effective patient communication and education is to find and explore common ground. Patients need to understand that the vertebral subluxation complex is, in effect, “what’s wrong.” Haven’t years of conditioning taught people to ask that of their doctors? “So doctor, what’s wrong with me?”
How you answer that question will quickly illustrate to patients how you see them, and how you see yourself as a problem-solver. The key is to use some of the patients’ every-day terminology in conjunction with what you want, and ultimately need, them to learn.
If interested, the same person who has learned to order a “one half-decaf iced grande extra caramel, non-fat macchiato, dash of cinnamon” can and will learn the vertebral subluxation complex. That person should have no trouble grasping that the vertebral subluxation complex has five component parts and that when any one of them is affected, their health is in jeopardy.
Patient education is a breeze if you can find common ground and can bridge that gap between the two extremes that can keep us from hearing each other. Make sure you have realistic expectations. Your patients won’t learn it all the first day. They won’t necessarily know every detail or repeat it as succinctly as it was explained. But by using simple metaphors and professionally created educational materials, chiropractic can be taught, understood and appreciated
It’s easy to subscribe to the idea that “less is more,” or that we need to lower the complexity of our explanations so much that we are barely saying anything. But remember that most of our prospects are more like us than they are different. For the most part, they are intelligent, likeable, caring and interesting people. They want the best for their kids, families and friends and have come to you as an alternative to the usual. They want better, more effective care that shows results and empowers them, not the watered-down version that we think they can “handle.”
I genuinely like my patients and care for their well-being, and I’m sure you do, too. Let’s give them the respect they deserve by supplying them with all the information we want them to know. Putting that faith in them will encourage them to put that faith in us.