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60-Second Science

Patients Leave Emergency Rooms Confused But Confident

Patients who leave emergency rooms tend to be unclear about what was done for them or what they should do next--but most of them are unjustifiably confident that they do understand the situation. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.

A trip to the emergency room is usually traumatic. It has to be. Why else would you be going? But new research shows that it also tends to be confusing. Scientists from the University of Michigan conducted detailed interviews with about 150 patients as they were released from the ER. And they compared the patients’ impressions of what had happened with their hospital records. What they found is that three quarters of the patients they spoke with didn’t understand what was wrong with them, what was done for them, or what they should do when they get home. What’s worse, these same patients reported being pretty sure of what they understood, or thought they understood, 80 percent of the time. The results appear online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The biggest area of confusion revolved around what to do next: what medicines patients might need to take, whether they should make an appointment to see their regular doc, or what symptoms would indicate they need to get themselves back to the ER. Obviously, doctors need to do a better job of explaining things. But patients, too, should question the staff until they get clear instructions. Take along a family member for an extra set of ears. Even ask the doctor to write things down. Of course, good luck trying to read it later.

—Karen Hopkin

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