I was a third-year medical student, dutifully reviewing discharge instructions with a patient and her family. The patient’s adult daughter asked, “What about that diet you put her on?” As they looked at me quizzically, I looked back equally confused, until it clicked: We needed to talk about the word diet. In everyday conversation, diet generally is understood to mean restriction of food to lose weight, which is what the family hoped would be prescribed for their obese family member. I needed to tell them that I was sorry for the misunderstanding. If they overheard us “ordering a diet,” we simply meant providing trays of hospital food.
We become so familiar with the language of our profession that we do not remember it may be foreign to our patients. In dermatology, we are aware that our specialty is full of esoteric jargon and complex concepts that need to be carefully explained to our patients in simpler terms. But since that incident in medical school, I have been interested in the more insidious potential misunderstandings that can arise from words as seemingly simple as diet. There are many examples in dermatology, particularly in the way we prescribe topical therapy and use trade names.
Instructions for systemic medications may be as simple as “take 1 pill twice daily.” Prescriptions for topical medications can be written with an equally simple patient signature such as “apply twice daily to affected area,” but the simplicity is deceptive. The direction to “apply” may seem intuitive to the prescriber, but we do not always specify the amount. Sunscreen, for example, is notoriously underapplied when the actual amount of product needed for protection is not demonstrated.1 One study of new dermatology patients given a prescription for a new topical medication found that the majority of patients underdosed.2
Determination of an “affected area,” regardless of whether the site is indicated, can be even less straightforward. In acne treatment, the affected area is the whole region prone to acne breakouts, whereas in psoriasis it may be discrete psoriatic plaques. We may believe our explanations are perfectly clear, but we have all seen patients spot treating their acne or psoriasis patients covering entire territories of normal skin with topical steroids, despite our education. One study of eczema action plans found that there was considerable variability in the way different providers described disease flares that require treatment. For example, redness was only used as a descriptor of an eczema flare in 68.2% of eczema action plans studied.3 Ensuring our patients understand our criteria for skin requiring topical treatment may mean the difference between treatment success and failure and also may help to avoid unnecessary side effects.
Adherence to topical medication regimens is poor, and inadequate patient education is only one factor.4,5 One study found that more than one-third of new prescriptions for topical medications were never even filled.6 However, improving our communication about application of topical drugs is one way we must address the complicated issue of adherence.