Talking about our health

Many of us have experienced some level of anxiety at the doctor’s office. There we are, sitting in a chilly room dressed in a paper thin, wearing an open-backed robe, and feeling vulnerable. We find ourselves tempted to exaggerate the amount of time we spend at the gym each week or to downplay the number of cocktails we drink on weekends. We are itching to ask whether our contact lenses can get lost in our eyes, or if that new juice cleanse has any merit—but we don’t. From worrying about looking foolish to fearing that you’ll learn that a weird mole may be much more serious than you thought, there are any number of reasons why we don’t ask our doctors the health questions that plague us. And as a result, there’s a breakdown in communication about one of the most important things we have—our health. At TEDMED this year, we’ll hear from Speakers and Innovators who are actively improving the way we approach conversations about health and the decisions we make about our care.

When communicating with your doctor, it can often feel like you don’t speak the same language. Maybe they use medical terms you don’t understand or offer prescription advice so quickly that you’re not able to absorb the fine details. However, working with your physician and navigating the health care system gets infinitely more difficult when they literally don’t speak the same language as you. That’s where ConsejoSano, founded by Abner Mason, steps in. ConsejoSano is the country’s only patient engagement and care navigation solution for the 54 million Hispanic Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish. Driven by the goal to meet “people ‘where they are’, linguistically and culturally”, Abner believes that the company’s data analytics, multi-channel messaging, care navigation, and round-the-clock access to native Spanish­-speaking medical advisors will be the formula needed to tackle health disparities and improve outcomes for the underserved Hispanic population.

Even when there’s no language barrier between you and your doctor, having an open and honest conversation with them can sometimes feel awkward. James Hamblin knows it can be uncomfortable to have frank conversations about our health, so he uses humor to answer many of the questions that cross our minds, but that we feel nervous to ask aloud. His columns and videos for The Atlantic acknowledge that healthy choices rarely fall under “all” or “nothing” labels, and that real people fit into those categories even less frequently. James tackles complicated questions like, “if someone chooses to smoke, should they smoke filtered cigarettes?” and fundamental curiosities such as, “how does sunscreen work?” His light-hearted and fact-driven approach makes the conversation about healthy living less intimidating and more accessible.

Like James, Meg Gaines feels strongly that patients need to take a more active role in their own health. As a cancer survivor and attorney in Wisconsin, Meg is committed to improving the physician-patient relationship, which can often be defined by either distrust or implicit trust. Meg says that both can be dangerous. Meg’s philosophy is that by laying a foundation of patient, family, and community participation in health care, we can reframe the idea of health care “delivery” to health care “co-creation.”

Even when we’re able to work closely with our physicians and take control of our own health, many of us are prone to falling back on long-held beliefs and resisting scientific facts. Sara Gorman’s work examines the reasons why it’s so difficult for us to change our minds, even in the face of evidence. For example, why do so many people believe vaccines are harmful, when there is scientific evidence that they are not only safe, but beneficial to our health? Like Meg, Sara advises physicians and health care providers to reconsider their approach with patients. She also offers tips on how providers can help patients understand the health-related options they have and the role providers play in assisting people to make scientifically sound decisions.

Unfortunately, the science isn’t always so black and white. What do we do when trusted news sources treat ongoing scientific investigations as a series of press releases? Massive Science, co-founded by Nadja Oertelt, wants to change the way science is reported. Their mission is to provide accurate, detailed, and clear science stories to the public—directly from researchers and scientists. By working closely with scientists, and helping them to talk about their work in ways that the broader public can understand, Massive is opening up lines of communication between scientists and the science-curious.

Whether it’s making health conversations more accessible, helping people change their minds in light of new evidence, or taking a new approach to sharing scientific data, these Speakers and Innovators see value in improving the way we approach conversations about healthcare and health-related science. By improving lines of communication between patients and physicians—and getting everyone on the same page—we can expect higher patient compliance and better health outcomes.