With Patients, When Isn’t Effective Communication Essential?

Premier Pulse     October 2019

By Andre Harris, MD, chief medical officer, Atrium Medical Center

1134192644My wife smirked at me when I told her that I was going to write on communication. Rightfully so, because at times my ability to communicate with her can be less than stellar. The question is, Can we afford for our communication to be “less than stellar” when it comes to the lives of our patients? Is there ever a time when it is acceptable to not communicate effectively when you are caring for a patient? 

In my short tenure as CMO of Atrium Medical Center, I have seen that effective communication cannot be replaced when it comes to patient care. In the age of texting and social media, we sometimes mistake written documentation as equivalent to face-to-face communication. Too many times, we pass on information, through our nursing staff, that deserves (at the very least) a provider-to-provider phone call.  The nuances of body language, facial expressions, and eye contact cannot be conveyed through a text or a hashtag. The sobering part is that patients expect that effective communication is standard for anyone involved in their medical care.   

Here are four keys to effective communication that I think will carry our system to a higher level (Helpguide.org, Lawrence Robinson et. Al, June 2018):

  • Become an engaged listener: Too many times we are distracted and are not giving our full attention to the person speaking to us. In the world of fast-paced medical care, this fragmented listening can lead to bad patient outcomes.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal signals: Sometimes it is more of what the patient is not saying that tells more of the story. The ability to listen with your eyes will fill in some of the words that are not being said.
  • Keep stress in check: In my mind I see a busy practice, ED, or difficult surgical procedure that would hinder the ability of effective communication going forward. Stressful times tend to subvert clear and concise communication. In these situations, it is best to pause, be deliberate about a single thought, and speak clearly.
  • Assert yourself:  To relay a thought effectively, sometimes it is necessary to grab the attention of your listener; patient safety is on the line. Asserting yourself doesn’t mean behaving rudely, but it does require that you share your thoughts deliberately.

Lastly the most important aspect of communication is just that … communication. The fact that you are speaking does not mean that the person is hearing (receiving) what is being said. The goal of communication is not just to hear yourself speak but to relay a pertinent idea that can be received by someone else. We help our patients thrive when all of us – physicians, nursing, EVS, nutrition, PT, radiology – learn how to effectively communicate.

Back to the October 2019 issue of Premier Pulse

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