How to Talk to Your Patients and Their Families

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Effective communication between healthcare professionals and their patients is essential to positive treatment outcomes, continuity of care and better patient satisfaction — but it’s not an easy skill to master. We’re shining a light on how to improve your day-to-day interactions with patients and their families based on peer-reviewed research and real-life experience.

Bridging the Communication Gap — And Why It Matters

According to research conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Evidence-Based Practice Center (JHUEPC), thorough communication between healthcare providers, patients and their families results in improved patient care as well as shorter hospital stays.

Additionally, the Institute for Healthcare Communication reports that positive clinical relationships increase patients’ adherence to their recommended treatment plans and help patients self-manage their conditions at home.

When patients feel less able to communicate with healthcare providers, they’re more likely to underuse their prescribed medications. They’re also less likely to understand their diagnoses and may underreport vital information about their health backgrounds. Poor communication is even linked to higher rates of malpractice lawsuits.

The Invaluable Role of Family Members and Friends

When working alongside patients and their families, it’s important to keep in mind that the definition of family is ever-changing in today’s world. You’ll come across both traditional and non-traditional family units with varied cultural diversity, so honor the patient’s definition of who belongs in their support group.

A patient’s family may consist of biological family members, close friends, domestic partners, etc. Whatever the relation, family members are present in approximately one-third of all examinations, and their presence has very little effect on the total examination time.

Family members are more likely to be present when the patient has a low level of health literacy or a chronic disease. Elderly patients, women, gay or lesbian patients, non–English-speaking patients, and children are also more likely to have family members at their sides.

Family and friends play a significant role in the patient’s understanding of his or her medical concerns as well as treatment decisions and outcomes.

9 Helpful Strategies for Improved Communication

  1. Explain each step.

Nurses are incredibly busy, and it’s easy to forget that your patients are eager for regular updates on what’s happening with their care. Communicate with them each and every step of the way, even if what’s happening is standard protocol in your world.

Just keeping them informed of what’s happening and why is enough to keep patients much more calm about their treatment measures.

  1. Simplify medical terms. 

It’s perfectly fine and encouraged to use exact medical terms with your patients, but keep in mind that most people will have no idea what you’re referencing unless you accompany the terminology with layman’s terms.

Use medical language alongside easy-to-digest explanations so that your patients fully understand what you’re telling them.

  1. Slow down.

Taking extra time with your patients can dramatically improve patient satisfaction, reduce stress levels and create a calmer work environment for everyone involved. Resist the temptation to rush through medical procedures and patient interactions.

Similarly, don’t hurry the decision-making process. Encourage organic choices by giving patients and their loved ones the time and space they need to feel confident in choosing self-directed treatment measures.

  1. Encourage questions.

Patients are going to have questions, and they need to know that they can run these inquiries by you as needed. Get in the habit of always asking patients and their families if anyone has any questions, and actually pause to give them time to find their words.

It takes an extra few seconds, but it goes a long way to encourage open communication.

  1. Build trust.

Patients and their loved ones need to know that they can count on you, so always follow through with your promises and follow up on requests. Going the extra mile helps ease patient anxiety and can actually make your shift run much smoother as a result.

  1. Engage the group.

When meeting with a patient’s support system, it’s important to identify each person’s relationship to the patient and establish who is primarily responsible for the patient’s at-home care — especially with vulnerable adults, elders, and children.

Speak to the group as a whole, but always circle back to the patient and address his or her needs first.

  1. Highlight the group’s importance.

Hospitals and doctor’s offices are intimidating for most people, and they may feel hesitant to ask you important questions. Family members and friends may feel especially reluctant to say anything in an examination, or they may become excessively talkative and drown out the patient’s voice.

Keep everyone on track by helping each person understand his or her role. Offer some ways in which they can help impact the patient’s care, recommend that someone take notes so that important instructions aren’t missed and ask if anyone has any specific concerns.

  1. Review care plans.

Speaking of discharge planning, it’s easy to forget that most people have very little experience providing medical care — and they’re unlikely to understand complicated instructions without some practice.

Help caregivers familiarize themselves with follow-up care plans by reviewing the instructions together and asking the caregiver to demonstrate his or her understanding of each step. This helps prevent misunderstandings or confusion, and it helps the patient transition home in good hands.

  1. Keep the focus on the patient.

No matter how many family members are present or how much each one wants to weigh in on their loved one’s care, the patient is always your top concern. Double-check everything with your patient, and take the time to speak with the patient alone so that you can make sure others aren’t overruling his or her actual wishes.

This is also a smart opportunity to assess whether the patient may be suffering physical, emotional or financial abuse and neglect.

What advice do you have for better communication between healthcare providers and their patients? Let us know your tricks of the trade in the comments section below!

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