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Effective communication in the era of precision medicine: A pilot intervention with low health literacy patients to improve genetic counseling communication


Effective communication, where all parties share a common understanding, is necessary to realize the promise of Genomic Medicine. It is especially salient given the imperative to increase the participation of diverse populations in genomics research and to expand the reach of clinical genomics. We have previously shown that cancer genetic counseling is suboptimal for patients with limited health literacy. To address this finding, we implemented a pilot study to improve verbal communication between genetic counselors and their patients of limited health literacy that consisted of: i) curriculum development and delivery of a Genetic Counselors (GC) communication workshop; ii) two-month post-workshop interviews with GC participants (n = 9); iii) observations/audio recordings of counseling sessions involving 24 patients and two GC workshop participants; iv) post-counseling interviews with patients (n = 9). The 4.5-h workshop presented evidenced-based principles and strategies for effective communication with limited health literacy patients (e.g. use of plain language and teach-back), and offered specific techniques and exercises to practice adoption of such practices in the genetic counseling context. GCs expressed appreciation for the opportunity to refine their skills; however, they reported that some strategies were challenging given their professional training and communication habits. For example, GCs were concerned that use of plain language could undermine efforts to obtain informed consent and provide scientifically accurate information. Observations and patient interviews after the workshop revealed that GCs were able to employ the communication strategies with positive effects, with patients indicating sufficient understanding of the genetic test and its implications as well as satisfaction with the counselors' communication. While derived from research on communication with those of limited health literacy, the communication approaches taught in the GC workshop could benefit most patients, given the high rates of low health literacy in many countries, and the many factors beyond health literacy that can contribute to reduced comprehension in health care environments.

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