Addressing Stigmatized Health Conditions During Patient Encounters

Stigma associated with certain health conditions may cause patients to withhold personal, relevant health information from physicians. Such scenarios are not uncommon, according to research published by Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, one study indicated that 47% of patients withheld information about pressing conditions, such as suicidality or depression. Reasons for withholding this information varies from patient to patient, but some indicated that embarrassment and fear of being judged influenced their decision to remain silent about their symptoms.

The Foundation for Healthcare Quality says that stigma is “defined as a powerful social process that is characterized by labeling, stereotyping and separation, leading to status loss and discrimination, in a context of power” and is a factor that drives morbidity and mortality.

Although there is a wide variety of topics that patients may not feel comfortable discussing with a healthcare provider, MDLinx says that the following “closet conditions” are among the most common:

  • mental illness;
  • addiction;
  • cognitive impairment;
  • obesity;
  • STDs; and
  • eating disorders.

Leading meaningful conversations with patients about these topics may help minimize stigma and guide care. According to a study published by American Family Physician, some tactics that may be useful in these communications include:

  • determining the patient’s agenda by asking open-ended questions;
  • avoiding interruption;
  • actively listening to patient concerns;
  • understanding the patient perspective;
  • expressing empathy;
  • utilizing shared decision-making; and
  • using nonverbal communication tools, such as nodding, leaning forward or maintaining eye contact.

MLMIC also encourages our policyholders to explore our available resources related to patient communication, including: