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Communicating with Patients: Improving Satisfaction and Outcomes

Communicating with Patients: Improving Satisfaction and Outcomes

Why good communication matters

Think for a moment about a few times when you were the customer — perhaps making a purchase in a store with the help of a salesperson, trying to resolve an error on your credit card statement with a customer service representative by phone, or talking to your mechanic about options to have your car repaired in the most cost-effective manner. The difference between these interactions being what you’d rate as positive and satisfactory as opposed to negative and frustrating probably had a lot to do with the quality of the communication you had with the person you were dealing with. Did you feel heard and understood? Or were you made to feel like your concerns were trivial or unimportant? Did the person you interacted with listen and seem genuinely interested in helping you? Or did he treat you as “just another customer”?

To be human is to want to be seen and to feel heard. Patients, whether they are present in your office or hospital or speaking with you by phone, are no different from you in that they are seeking to be understood and have their needs met. In addition to the obvious — that it’s polite to interact in an effective and friendly manner with other people — there are four important reasons to hone your communication skills for use in the healthcare setting.

Retaining patients. Healthcare is a business like any other. Patients have choices, and if they are not happy with the service they receive, they can (in most cases) seek care elsewhere. Because the practice of medicine is complex, patients may not always be able to evaluate the quality of the clinical care they receive, but they are more than capable of evaluating whether they had interactions with staff that made them feel respected, comfortable, and informed.

Improving outcomes. From a clinical perspective, it is important to communicate clearly with patients so that they can participate in their own care. For example, if a patient is not supposed to eat or drink prior to a surgical procedure or having blood drawn, a successful outcome may be dependent on them knowing exactly what to do — or in this case what not to do — and the reason behind the instruction. Other instances in which clinical care can be impacted by communication is in patients making and keeping follow-up appointments, taking medications properly, or following a special nutrition program. All of these actions on the part of patients require that they understand what they are supposed to do, and why.

Reducing risks. Good communication and quality service may, in part, be a factor in reducing the risk of lawsuits. Patients can be very forgiving toward doctors and hospitals even when actual harm (albeit unintentional) has been done if they feel they’ve been treated with respect and compassion. And while it’s far from an everyday occurrence, poor communication or service on the part of staff can sometimes be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” if a patient has a negative clinical outcome or suffers due to a medical error and is on the fence about filing a claim. Try not to be that straw.

Fixing problems. Having staff members who are well versed in the art of communication is advantageous to healthcare organizations in ways that go beyond delivering quality patient care and service. James Shaw is the president and founder of Shaw Resources, a healthcare consulting firm. He says that employees who communicate effectively are an asset to their managers and to the organizations they work in. “Management needs to know instantly if something isn’t going right,” says Shaw. “Employees are the eyes and ears of the system. Good communication skills in all directions make it more likely that problems will be recognized and fixed before they become serious.” Sometimes a patient complaint can be the best thing you’ll hear all day. If, that is, you take action by communicating the issue up the management chain.


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