Managing Patient Expectations: Effective Communication

March 22, 2012

It is not always possible to spend sufficient time with the patient and family to get the job done. Being a proactive communicator can make a big difference.

Effective communication with patients, their families and other stakeholders and providers plays an important role in improving outcomes, practice efficiency, effectiveness, and preventing unnecessary hospital readmissions. Effective communication can also benefit payer balance, mitigate risk of litigation, and deliver increased physician and patient referrals while stimulating patient retention. Communicating with patients and peers is seventh on a list of 10 new patient expectations I introduced in January.

Last week’s article focused on being accessible. This week, the focus is on the conversation between patients and their caregivers, and the challenges are as great as the consequences.

Increasing patient loads, declining reimbursements, and inflated outcome expectations and rankings escalate the challenge of doing more with less time. How do you explain what is going on, get patients to take more responsibility to maintain and/or regain their health, and deal with their families when there is less and less time available for them?

Breaking needs and expectations down to three primary conditions - acute, episodic and chronic - may help to put things into focus in the spectrum of communication expectations:

Condition               Patients’ Communication Needs                     Family Communication Needs
Acute                      Can you save me?                                               Can you save them?
Episodic                What is happening and what can you do?      What can you do?
Chronic                  What is happening and what can I do?           What can I do?

Following the onset of acute conditions (presuming successful treatment), patients often experience an episodic event, and again, presuming successful treatment, either are discharged or diagnosed with a chronic condition. Throughout this process, most patients and their families are seeking solutions, definitive conclusions, and the effects of each option available to them. Others just want to put the episode behind them and move on.

The challenge to the healthcare professional becomes time management and effective communication for each unique scenario.

Let’s complicate things and add a flood of information, and misinformation, from the Internet, relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Eight out of 10 people go to the Internet to find solutions and they often talk to others who are also receiving and dispensing even more information and misinformation.

This makes the education component of healthcare more complicated than ever. Questions are not always asked, and information may be conflicting, leading to confusion instead of clarity.
It is not always possible to spend sufficient time with the patient and family to get the job done.
Being a proactive communicator can make a big difference.

Step 1 – Convert the information on your website from an electronic brochure to an educational resource. Invest in keeping the information fresh, topical, and searchable. If you don’t have the time or staff, invest in healthcare professionals to create the content and edit it to fit your practice. In the end, it is less expensive in time and treasure. If you do not have a website, invest in one.

Step 2 – Build and maintain a patient contact database and use it to communicate new information, helpful hints, new developments, and common questions and answers:

• Invest in bringing your patient contact database up-to-date.
• Invest in training everyone who touches patient records to keep it that way.
• Invest in a professional contact e-mail management and mass outreach system or experienced servicer who understands the medical practice.
• Invest in professionals or existing staff to write materials and professionals to prepare the materials and distribute them. Provide information on diseases, conditions, treatments, wellness, and related subjects. Keep them to 350 words or less.
• Touch each patient with an e-mail, call, Tweet or mailing at least once a month.
• Post mailings, archive them in a searchable format, and provide links to other materials on your website.

This may seem like a lot, but do the math. Saving just a few extra minutes per patient by pointing them to your website for answers can add up to several hours per week and a lost day each month and more for a busy physician; a good trade for an hour or two’s time to write or edit new materials.

In addition to the obvious benefit of communicating more efficiently and effectively -advantages in prospective improved outcomes, mitigated risk, and better equipped patients - these tactics are also effective in earning patient and physician referrals, retaining and winning back patients that have strayed from your practice. Communicate effectively and you will do more with less.

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