True Communication: Making or Breaking Your Healthcare
It’s not uncommon for a patient to return home from a doctor’s appointment only to have forgotten the entire conversation between themselves and the physician. They may be unsure of the medication amounts to take each morning, what foods to avoid for what periods of time, or what to do if they can’t afford the prescribed medicine. As a patient, even a routine annual physical or simple check-up can be overwhelming. An abundant amount of information is given in a short time frame. And, if effective communication is not executed between the healthcare professional and the patient, the entire outcome could be a negative one. In severe cases, it can even be devastating to the patient’s health or the physician's reputation.
True and effective communication in our healthcare system plays an important role in providing exceptional patient care. A 2015 Crico Strategies research study with data from the Risk Management Foundation of the Harvard Medical Institution found that poor communication costs the U.S. healthcare system roughly $1.7 billion dollars in malpractice costs, not to mention the loss of an estimated 2,000 lives. Cases involving general medicine, obstetrics, nursing, and surgery had roughly a 30% communication failure. Improving patient and practitioner communication is paramount to improving these shocking statistics. But how?
The keys to achieving clear communication rely on several opportunities for both the healthcare professional and the patient. While no one can control another’s mind or really be certain that another fully understands, there are steps that the practitioner can take to ensure that the message communicated is the message received.
The Patient Paradox
One of the most important aspects of healthcare is understanding the type of patient you are caring for. Patients, like all people, have many different personalities and come from many different backgrounds. If you were to say the exact same thing to two different patients, they might both walk away thinking something completely different. Cultural disconnects, potential personality disorders yet to be identified, or misinterpreted conversational cues can all interfere with clear communication. Putting in the effort to understand the personality of each patient as a human being and from where they are specifically coming from is a solid foundation of communication.
The Complexity of Diagnosing
The truth is, some patients are not good at communicating. They may be very private people, or they may not understand why something they consider irrelevant may actually be important in their diagnosis. Some patients may simply have trouble remembering their medical history. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the practitioner to ask the right questions and go the extra mile for true communication to occur. Being proactive instead of categorically lumping the patient into a broad stroke of treatment is the more effective path.
For example, picture a new patient walking into a dental office. The dentist introduces him or herself and begins asking the patient about their medical history. The healthcare provider assumes the completed medical history form is accurate and complete. What they don’t know is that the patient had a recent hip replacement they omitted from the form. In their mind, hips have nothing to do with teeth. Without volunteering this information, they wouldn’t know things like, are they required to wait on dental treatment until the area is completely healed? Do they have to take antibiotics prior to treatment? If the dentist takes the time to re-ask the questions on the intake form, explaining why specific questions are important, they may be able to avoid complications due to this lack of communication.
This is just one of the reasons why active listening skills are so imperative. Even if the red flags are not visibly apparent, a good listener can pick up cues that there may be more than meets the eye. Probing patients to get more information, even if they seem uncomfortable telling you, could save their lives. Be proactive and do the digging. Not doing your homework can lead to malpractice. Patients are seeking you for help and, as shown in studies, errors in communication can result in devastating outcomes if information is left out.
Another reason why probing is imperative is that patients may not share their whole truth, whether it be from embarrassment or even self-denial. For instance, a person might say they are a social smoker, having only the occasional cigarette, while the reality is they have around a half a pack a day. They may claim they have a glass of wine a night, but it’s really a bottle. The patient may not realize that this difference in truth may affect their treatment or diagnosis. Most likely, they aren’t holding back this information to make your job harder, only to save face. The unfortunate thing is that it does make the job harder, which is why there is value in probing the patient a little. If these half-truths are affecting their health, a doctor has to use his or her own judgment if the patient isn’t always honest during a checkup. It’s better to ask outright than try to gather information from nuances in conversation. If information is left out, clinical diagnosis and decisions could be compromised and lead to errors.
The Trouble with Technology
Another potential hindrance to correctly diagnosing and communicating with the patient is that they may think they already have the answers to their issues. While smart technology and self-care apps are available to patients tin order for them to track their individual health and provide an opportunity for them to take better care of themselves, some patients may take it a step further, assuming this knowledge qualifies them as a competent physician. It’s important for the physician to communicate this as well.
Yes, the patient is more familiar with their body. However, they are not more familiar with the best treatments or other potential issues that could be occurring, no matter what their WebMD or Google searches may lead them to believe. The important thing is to be patient. Listen to the patient’s self-diagnosis and address it, whether they are on the right track or not. If you do not listen to them and offer a valid response as to whether or not what they feel is accurate, they may leave your office doubting your competency.
The Power of Empathy
Another surprising factor in clear communication is empathy. Often times, patients are too emotionally upset to clearly communicate, which is why it’s important for the practitioner to hold a space and be empathetic in each situation. Patients who are being treated for serious diseases or extreme pain may be scared and let their minds get the best of them.
As a healthcare professional, it's important to communicate all possibilities realistically, but understand that it’s also important to remain calm. A calm, comforting healthcare professional will help the patient relax without becoming too emotional. Some patients are more fragile than others when it comes to emotional reactions, depending on the case or symptoms. Additionally, some patients may read into body language from healthcare professionals and attempt to apply meaning to non-verbal cues based on what they see.
Interpersonal communication skills will provide clarity through the full spectrum of all types of patients. Delicate communication and empathy will build trust with patients. Patients put their trust into the hands of the healthcare professional, so providing them with a personality that is approachable and tonally comforting is a great first step to truly communicating a healing process.
Keep a Record
Healthcare professionals are inundated with mass amounts of patients on any given day. They don’t always have the desired amount of time with each patient. With all the different faces, problems, and diagnoses throughout each day, it’s understandable to lose track of bits of information. This is why complete record-keeping for each individual patient is so important. Two people can have the same disease but slightly different treatments based on their lifestyles. Pay attention to each patient’s track record. Additionally, referrals, discharge letters, and follow up appointments help practitioners monitor their patients and allow you to get to know patients on a more personal level.
It may also be prudent to note aspects of each patient’s personality. Perhaps with one, you can be more glib and to the point. With another, it may be more effective to be gentle and soothing in all of your communication.
The Sum of True Communication
Ultimately, true communication is obtained by the sum of understanding a patient’s personality, empathy, and delicacy. Focusing on these three items assists the practitioner in embracing the entire biography of the person you are helping. And it will allow for a more complete and positive treatment.
Proper communication among healthcare professionals is vital for comprehensive patient care and management. True communication occurs when both the patient and the practitioner assist each other. The exchange of honesty and truthful information is the maker of getting the best healthcare available.
Treatments may not always be a textbook diagnosis. Judgment and assumption can only go so far. As a healthcare professional, you may be learning something you didn’t know from a particular patient with a particular physical obstruction or anomaly. Don’t be short with a patient for fear that you may discover new concerns that take you into unknown territory or bring about complications you have never seen or dealt with before.
Healthcare providers have an obligation to ask the right questions at the right times. Streamlining procedures to adequately move along the process can be detrimental if there are gaps in the medical information. Some patients are incapable of knowing what information to share and what questions to ask. Assumptions on both ends can lead down a damaging path of improper treatment.
It’s important that communication is free-flowing throughout the entire patient encounter. After all, healthcare providers are more than practitioners, they are the guardians of men and women. It is their duty to help everyone they can to the best of their ability. This is done through true communication.
Jon Hauer is a freelance writer and digital designer originally from Minnesota now based in Del Rey, CA. He received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication Studies from the University of St. Thomas and graduated from Pepperdine University in 2015 with a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree in Writing. He has worked in the tourism/hospitality industry for years and writes professionally on a number of topics including travel, business, marketing, tourism, home services, art, sports, entertainment, news, etc.