Six Ways Physicians Can Better Communicate with Patients, Staff

November 6, 2013

Effective verbal communication is essential to patient satisfaction, quality of care, and efficient operations in any medical office.

Effective verbal communication is essential to patient satisfaction, quality of care, and efficient operations in any medical office.  Time pressures, as well as different points of view, however, can make effective communication difficult. 

Here are six simple principles physicians should remember when communicating with patients and staff:1. Get the attention of the listener.  A staff member may be focused on another task, or may think you are speaking to someone else.  A patient may be reading material you have given her.  Remember that no one can really multi-task.  Effective communication of important information requires the full engagement of both parties.

2. Make eye contact. Obviously this is not possible for telephone conversations, but it is essential to in-person interactions.  Eye contact is confirmation that both people are actively engaged in the interchange, or not.

3. Make sure the listener is ready to listen. One of the most difficult tasks for a physician is to recognize when, in spite of eye contact, the listener's mind is on something else.  It is even more difficult for a physician to resist the temptation to proceed anyway because the listener is supposed to be listening.

The point to remember is that it does no good to deliver information or instruction if the listener is not in a position to receive, assess, and react to it.  Although counter-intuitive, it actually saves time to solicit and address the listener's questions and concerns before saying what you need to say. The patient or staff member will be better able to focus on your words, and the message is less likely to need to be repeated.  In the case of a patient, getting the message across can be the difference between compliance and non-compliance with a treatment plan.

4. Avoid low volume and rapid speech. If people cannot hear and understand what you are saying, the time spent, no matter how little, is wasted.  Because hearing problems are rampant, this principle is not just applicable to older patients and staff.  It's best to assume that everyone needs clear speech at a volume that is just louder than conversational.

5. Deliver the message in language familiar to the listener. The physician should communicate in language the listener can understand and process.  For instance, if a surgeon tells a patient he found no carcinoma, the patient may be left wondering if the surgeon found cancer. Remember: The objective is to deliver information.  If the technically correct language is necessary, amplify it with a paraphrase in the listener's vernacular. 

6. Ask the listener to paraphrase the message. The temptation is to ask a question that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no."  It's quick and efficient, but it is not effective.  People older than age two have a strong tendency to respond "yes" to any question.  Asking the patient or staff member, "Please tell me what you think I said" is a good way to gauge understanding.  The process of paraphrasing and speaking also enhances retention.

If this sounds like too much trouble, and you just don't have the time to practice the six principles, ask yourself how much time you spend repeating instructions and mitigating the results of miscommunications.  Consistently investing a little more effort in effective communication saves a tremendous amount of time and avoids all sorts of unhappy outcomes.