5 Ways to Improve Doctor–Patient Communication
By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor
Doctor–patient communication is essential to the success of any healthcare experience. Effective communication in healthcare translates to a host of benefits including better patient engagement, improved clinical outcomes and much more.
But how can physicians make improvements in their patient encounters, and ensure that important messages are given and received? There are several best practices that are gaining recognition for enhancing communication in healthcare in significant ways.
As an example, a 2017 study published by the American Journal of Medical Quality showed how a communication training program that was implemented by a major academic medical center was able to improve patients' perceptions by 9 percent.
5 Best Practices for Improving Doctor–Patient Communication
1. Support patient engagement in your organizational culture
Whether working in small private practices or large academic medical centers, physicians and other clinicians need to understand the importance of connecting with patients, doing everything possible to ensure clear communication.
The management team can promote patient-centered communication in mission statements, orientation sessions, in-service training, and everyday practices, while practitioners can model effective communication for other staff including those they supervise. Providing the proper tools and support is also critical to ensure everyone can get on board.
2. Leverage technology
The Institute of Medicine has identified technology as one of the critical forces necessary to improve the quality of healthcare in the United States, including its role in doctor–patient communication. Although patient privacy is of utmost importance in all forms of healthcare communication, there are many new technological advances that can be leveraged while still staying in compliance with HIPAA and other patient confidentiality mandates.
Email is one of the easiest technologies that can be used to improve doctor–patient communication and patient engagement. Some patients who would not be comfortable reaching out to a physician in person may be willing to communicate via email. Some physicians are also using other forms of technology to improve communication with patients, such as smart watches, online applications like patient portals, and mobile texting programs.
READ: 8 Ways Healthcare Technology Is Changing Clinical Practice
3. Lend an ear
Communication is obviously a two-way street, and it is essential to allow patients ample time to voice any issues or concerns. Asking pointed questions and then leaving your patients time to talk will help open the lines of communication in all healthcare settings.
According to a 2010 study on doctor–patient communication published in the Ochsner Journal, “attentive listening skills, empathy, and use of open-ended questions are some examples of skillful communication. Improved doctor-patient communication tends to increase patient involvement and adherence to recommended therapy; influence patient satisfaction, adherence, and health care utilization; and improve quality of care and health outcomes.”
4. Take a personal approach
Numerous studies and healthcare organizations have touted the benefits of personalizing communication between physicians and their patients. Some of the key ways to make healthcare communications more personal include the following:
- Use the patient’s name whenever possible
- Introduce yourself if necessary, sincerely welcome the patient and explain your role as the physician
- Remove any barriers to communication (i.e. sit down instead of standing over them, ensure eye contact, make the patient feel comfortable, etc.)
- Ask open-ended questions about the patient’s background and current health status
- Use the teach-back method and summarize the visit at the end to ensure the patient understands all aspects of the treatment/care plan
5. Take your time
Even if you’re scheduled for back-to-back appointments and running on fumes, it is essential to treat each patient interaction as if it is the first one of the day. Patients who feel like they are being rushed through the process—especially after waiting to be seen—may clam up or feel uncomfortable. Either of these reactions can have a detrimental effect on doctor–patient communication.
As soon as you step into an exam room or in-patient room, make sure you are fully present. Avoid looking at your watch, smartphone or other device, and take some time to truly focus on the patient and any family members who may be present.
Researchers in the Oshner Journal study commented, “In an ideal world, doctors should collaborate with their patients to provide the best care because doctors tend to make decisions based on quick assessments, which may be biased. This requires the doctors to take time or set up opportunities to offer and discuss treatment choices to patients and share the responsibility and control with them.”
So, don’t rush it. Effective communication in healthcare can take a little longer, but it is critical to patient engagement and follow-through on their plan of care.
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