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Tips for Effective Patient-Provider Communication

Tips for Effective Patient-Provider Communication

Want better patient outcomes, more patient cooperation, fewer errors, greater job satisfaction and more effective use of your time? It's all possible by improving one key skill: Patient communication.

"Communication is the most important medical procedure that anyone in healthcare can do," says Maysel Kemp White, PhD, president and CEO of Healthcare Quality and Communication Improvement, an educational and consulting group for healthcare professionals. Because communication is so vital to successful patient outcomes and higher patient satisfaction, many healthcare providers are honing their skills to avoid communication glitches.

Barriers to Communication

One major obstacle to effective communication is the vast gap between the healthcare world and that of the average patient. "Entering a healthcare system can be similar to landing on another planet -- the customs, dress, language and privacy rules are all very foreign and mostly not welcome, especially when one is scared and not feeling well," Kemp White says.

Low literacy rates also sabotage understanding. Health literacy is a staggering problem, according to Dr. Terry Stein, director of clinician-patient communication for The Permanente Medical Group, a Kaiser Permanente branch.

Nearly half of all Americans have trouble understanding and using health information, according to a 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Patients with limited health literacy are hospitalized more often and use emergency services more frequently, which can lead to billions of dollars in avoidable healthcare costs.

Furthermore, the most recent National Adult Literacy Survey found that an estimated 30 million adults, or 14 percent, have "below basic" literacy skills. Healthcare professionals generally rank in the highest category, creating another gap.

Conversation can also falter when patients are suffering from emotionally charged medical problems such as abuse, urinary stress incontinence or pelvic floor pain, says Anne Harrison, PT, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences.

Other hurdles can surface when English is a patient's second language, computers are present in the examination or hospital room, and patients' expectations of the healthcare system rise with their out-of-pocket contributions.

Four Healthy Habits

Realizing the link between how well a provider communicates and patient satisfaction and outcomes, many healthcare systems are training employees in this critical skill. Kaiser Permanente trains physicians, therapists, pharmacists and optometrists in its four habits communication model:

  • Invest in the Beginning: Create rapport quickly. Elicit the patient's concerns, and plan the visit together.
  • Elicit the Patient's Perspective: Ask for the patient's ideas. Determine his goal in seeking care, and explore the illness's impact on his life.
  • Demonstrate Empathy: Be open to the patient's emotions. Make an empathetic statement as well as conveying empathy nonverbally.
  • Invest in the End: Deliver diagnostic information in terms of the patient's original concerns. Educate the patient, and involve him in the decision-making process. Then complete the visit.

Partnering with Patients

The American Academy on Communication and Healthcare (AACH) trains allied health professionals at large healthcare organizations to improve patient satisfaction and the overall work environment. The AAPP emphasizes collaboration between the healthcare provider and patient through three primary functions:

  • Building Relationships: Make patients, family members and providers work as partners.
  • Treating the Patient as a Person: Welcome him to your world, and orient him to the care process. Create a partnership by offering empathy, respect, legitimacy and support.
  • Educating the Patient After Discovering What He Already Knows: Tailor the care plan to the patient, and explain why it doesn't include what he may have expected. Make sure he understands you by having him repeat your instructions.

"The whole purpose is to make sure the patient feels they are a partner in their care," says Kemp White. "Patients spend about only 2 percent of their time on the healthcare planet, but they spend 98 percent living with and managing their illness. They're on their own most of the time."

The Payoff for Patients -- and You

Adopting these communication techniques isn't difficult if you practice diligently. "Choose one new skill, and practice it consciously for five weeks," Kemp White says. "It will become part of who you are." Chances are, the payoff will be happier, healthier patients and more job satisfaction and success for you.

Learn more about healthcare careers.

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