Communicate: 5 Tips for Effective Clinician-Patient Communication

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A doctor’s ability to communicate effectively with his patients can have a profound effect on health outcomes, patient satisfaction and overall experience. “But good communication is about developing skills, not changing your personality,” says Barbara Andrews, director of grants and projects at the Institute for Healthcare Communication. Take these 5 steps suggested by our experts.

Tip #1: Keep It Simple

Jargon, technical language and overloading your patients with too much information too quickly can confuse, overwhelm and make them feel incompetent. Language and literacy barriers complicate thiAt The Doctors Offices even more.

If patients walk away not understanding what they’re supposed to do, then the visit was counterproductive. Avoid complex terms, break concepts down into smaller pieces of information and keep it simple. Also, says Michael Ho, MD, of Anesthesiology Consultants, slow it down and make sure your patients understand what you’ve said.

“Allow a pause, creating a strategic silence. This gives time for the patient to think and information to sink in,” he advises. “Ask questions to assess patient understanding, repeat explanations as needed and encourage questions.”

Tip #2: Evaluate Your Presence

Subtle gestures, eye contact, facial expressions and body positions can be as important as the words being spoken. For example, sitting down sets the stage for friendly collaboration, whereas standing up can create an interaction that feels rigid and dictatorial.

Some other things to consider, suggests Kathy Roy Gaughran, senior marketing strategist at Healthcare Success Strategies, include:

  • Smiling—Smiles are contagious and suggest a positive, helpful attitude
  • Making eye contact—Eye contact communicates attention, interest and focus
  • Relaxing your upper body— Crossed arms and rising shoulders are negatives, whereas relaxed, open arms are a welcoming, receptive signal

Tip #3: Listen More, Talk Less

It can be difficult not to interrupt a patient to speed things along. One study, for example, showed that after asking a question, doctors interrupted within an average of 17 seconds. “The irony is that—if left uninterrupted—the patient will only talk for about a minute and a half,” says Andrews.

Within that short time span, there’s much to be gleaned about patient preferences and concerns, how a patient is feeling, why he’s there and what he expects. Resist the urge to interrupt or rush the conversation, and practice good listening skills.

Tip #4: Put Empathy on ICE

A little empathy can go a long way to enhance physician-patient interactions. The following three “ICE” questions can help guide empathy-driven conversations:

  • Idea—What is your idea about what is going on?
  • Concerns—What are you most worried about?
  • Expectations—What are you expecting that I can do?

Tip #5: Practice Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing (MI) is “a collaborative approach that helps patients think about making changes and why changes are important. It gives them the confidence to make those changes without resistance,” says Andrews.

The “change talk” techniques of MI can help you identify verbal cues from patients that indicate a desire to alter a behavior and then start a cooperative, nonconfrontational question-and-answer process to elicit change. Questions that you might ask include:

  • Why do you feel that you need to change?
  • What would you like to change about your current situation?
  • What are the consequences of not changing?
  • Who is affected by your behavior?

Focus on applying even just one of these techniques, and you’ll quickly start to notice a difference.

Matt Brock
Matt Brock is the Director of Communications at NCQA. After more than two decades working in broadcast journalism, Matt now leads NCQA’s efforts to develop unique content that engages and informs consumers as well as providers, plans and policymakers via this blog, our website, NCQA.org and numerous social media platforms. Matt’s goal is to educate consumers and to direct them to the best resources when considering quality in their health care decisions.

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