Importance of communication in the healthcare industry

Dr Vivek Gopal

The importance of communication in the healthcare industry can help prevent injuries and death, increase trust between the patient and the caregiver, and strengthen relationships with other staff members. 

What Is Effective Communication in Healthcare?
Effective communication between healthcare professionals should be clear, timely and discrete. This communication is needed to make accurate diagnoses, ensure that treatments are appropriately provided, and ensure that patients understand health status and needs. 

Effective communication — both intrahospital and interhospital — is important for health care providers to protect their patients, save on costs, and increase day-to-day operating efficiency. Meanwhile, patients benefit from increased access to their medical histories, which reduces chances of medical errors. 

Here are a few top tips for effective communication in healthcare: 

  1. Use Clear, Simple Language At All Times
  2. Have A Flexible Consultation Style
  3. Learn To Listen & Empathise
  4. Establish A Dialogue With Patients
  5. Be Aware Of Your Non-Verbal Communication
  6. Communicating With Colleagues

Effective communication of healthcare information can empower patients and their family members to participate as full partners in their care and is demonstrated to improve adherence to treatment and self-management. However, the importance of patient-provider communication extends far beyond the inpatient setting. 

What are the barriers to communication in healthcare?
Competing demands, lack of privacy, and background noise are all potential barriers to effective communication between nurses and patients. Patients’ ability to communicate effectively may also be affected by their condition, medication, pain and/or anxiety. 

How can barriers to communication be overcome in healthcare? 

Here are a few of our top tips for overcoming communication barriers in healthcare. 

  1. Ask your patient to be a parrot
  2. Medical Memory can help you significantly overcome communication
  3. Be visual
  4. Record each visit
  5. Always use easy-to-understand language
  6. Learn to listen and understand

What Is the Importance of Communication in Health Care?
For hospitals and health care institutions, ensuring that patients receive proper care takes more than performing procedures and making diagnoses. Communication is a crucial component in all steps of the health care process. Whether it be a clinic accurately sharing patient information with another facility, or a group of doctors, nurses, specialists, and other staff at a hospital discussing how to treat current and incoming patients, the need for concise, effective communication is always present in the health field. 

Organisations with strong communication policies can enrich their patients’ health, while those that don’t have effective procedures in place can negatively impact patient well-being. Health care professionals and institutions need to recognize the importance of communication in health care in order to thrive. 

How Are Better Communication Practises Beneficial?
Poor communication has been a factor in 1,744 patient deaths and over $1.7 billion in malpractice costs nationally in the past five years, according to a study published in FierceHealthcare. This shows that better communication methods would benefit both patients and health care providers. 

A Focus on Patient Safety:
When considering the importance of communication in health care, patient safety is one of the top reasons to create an effective communication structure in any healthcare organisation. Inadequate communication is often a leading cause of in-hospital deaths. “In a retrospective review of 14,000 in-hospital deaths, communication errors were found to be the lead cause, twice as frequent as errors due to inadequate clinical skill,” notes a 2006 study in the Clinical Biochemist Review. 

While communication errors can have severe consequences, these issues are often relatively easy to fix, meaning many patient deaths caused by communication errors are preventable. That fact alone is one of the most important reasons why communication is so important for patient safety. 

Interhospital vs. Intrahospital Communications
There are two types of communication methods that health care institutions use, that are crucial to patient safety and well-being: interhospital and intrahospital. 

Interhospital communications involve information sharing among multiple sites or institutions. This includes transmissions between facilities owned by the same organisation and between completely separate health care entities. Moving patients from one facility to another, sending medical records, and transporting vital medical equipment all require clear communication between sites. 

However, hospitals often encounter obstacles in communicating effectively with one another. A study conducted by the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS) found that poor interhospital communication costs the industry upward of $12 billion annually. Inadequate communication drives up costs by preventing institutions from accessing patients’ medical files, which may create a need for duplicate tests and second opinions that would not otherwise be necessary. 

Problems with communication also occur among personnel within the same hospital. Intrahospital communication is any information sharing within a singular institution — whether it involves coordinating room changes, scheduling surgeries, assigning further tests, or even setting up appointments. When doctors, staff, and patients are not effectively sharing information, the efficiency of each process may decrease, potentially resulting in unnecessary costs or even danger to patients. Patient record delays, lack of procedural coordination, and even serious medical errors may all be consequences of poor intrahospital communication. 

Common Communication Methods
Each health care system has multiple forms of communication that administrators and staff must be trained to use properly and efficiently. When even one of these communication methods fails, patient safety can be put at risk. A minor printing mistake could lead to incorrect dosages, or incomplete information may keep a doctor from knowing about a crucial allergy. Understanding how standard communication methods work is the first step in ensuring that a hospital is running as smoothly as possible, for both the patients’ and the hospital’s sake. To that end, here are some of the most common ways that hospitals and other health care systems communicate and share information. 

Transmitting Patient Data
Patient records are shared securely via inter-and intrahospital communications. Delays in receiving records can cost hospitals millions of dollars each year in unnecessary expenses. Patient data are used to create a thorough medical history and provide appropriate medical care. When patient data aren’t shared between departments or other health care organisations, there may be a much higher chance of practice errors and subsequent increased costs. 

Sharing Research Findings
The healthcare industry relies on research to create and improve tools and procedures. However, some third-party researchers — such as those who work for private companies or pharmaceutical labs — are reluctant to share their findings with providers because of competitive pressures in their industries. Lack of access to the latest research can stall medical advancement, waste funding, and negatively impact health outcomes, according to an article published by Forbes. For health care techniques to evolve, providers must implement communication systems that allow researchers to quickly and easily collaborate, both within the same organisation and across multiple organisations. 

Collaborating with Colleagues
Intrahospital communication relies heavily on collaboration between colleagues. Patients, lab technicians, doctors, and staff all need to be in constant communication to create a system that operates as smoothly as possible. Inter-colleague  collaboration also includes entering information accurately into databases, especially shared ones. Inaccurate communication between departments can lead to errors in database entry, which, in turn, can potentially risk patient safety. 

Coordinating Hospital Leadership
Whether publicly or privately funded, hospitals are businesses, and they need to operate as such. Hospital managers and other leaders must communicate frequently with doctors, staff, and patients. All hospital leaders and managers not only oversee administrative staff and tasks but can also play a vital role in individual patient health care plans. To be effective, they should maintain open lines of communication with those around them and also facilitate information sharing between hospital departments and with other institutions. 

Telemedicine Advancements
Health care professionals are increasingly embracing telemedicine, which involves using a variety of internet-connected technologies to serve patients remotely. These technological tools play essential roles in health care communications, according to the American Telemedicine Association. 

Hospitals and other healthcare organisations use internal online networks, or intranets, to create more efficient communication processes. This makes patient record sharing and cross-departmental communications much easier. What once may have been communicated via printed files and memos can now be shared electronically within the organisation and sent to other organisations. 

Telemedicine goes even further by allowing patients to receive medical care and advice from the comfort of their own homes. Using state-of-the-art communication tools, patients and health care providers are able to discuss health concerns via video chat, often eliminating the need for the patient to visit the provider’s office. Not only does this cut down on costs for both the provider and the patient, but it also creates a seamless communication experience for everyone involved 

Healthcare Communication Outcomes
A clinician may conduct as many as 150,000 patient interviews during a typical career. If viewed as a healthcare procedure, the patient interview is the most commonly used procedure that the clinician will employ. Yet communication training for clinicians and other healthcare professionals historically has received far less attention throughout the training process than have other clinical tasks. 

This is so even as evidence continues to mount that a structured approach to communication measurably improves healthcare delivery. 

Diagnostic Accuracy 

  • Most diagnostic decisions come from the history-taking component of the interview. Yet, studies of clinician-patient visits reveal that patients are often not provided the opportunity or time to tell their story / history, often due to interruptions, which compromise diagnostic accuracy. Incomplete stories /history leads to incomplete data upon which clinical decisions are made.
  • When interruptions occur, the patient may perceive that what they are saying is not important and leads to patients being reticent to offer additional information.
  • The bottom line is that when patients are interrupted, it is a deterrent to collecting essential information and it hinders the relationship.

Adherence is defined as the extent to which a patient’s behaviour corresponds with agreed upon recommendations from a healthcare provider. Certainly, we are all aware of the huge problem of non-adherence in health care. For instance, a Health Care Quality Survey conducted by the Commonwealth fund found that 25% of Americans report they did not follow their clinician’s advice and provides the reasons cited in this survey:

  1. 39% disagreed with what the clinician wanted to do (in terms of recommended treatment)
  2. 27% were concerned about cost
  3. 25% found the instructions too difficult to follow
  4. 20% felt it was against their personal beliefs
  5. And 7% reported they did not understand what they were supposed to do

Patient Satisfaction 

The core elements comprising patient satisfaction include: 

  • Expectations: Providing an opportunity for the patient to tell their story
  • Communication: patient satisfaction increased when members of the healthcare team took the problem seriously, explained information clearly, and tried to understand the patient’s experience, and provided viable options.
  • Control: Patient satisfaction is improved when patients are encouraged to express their ideas, concerns and expectations.
  • Decision-making: Patient satisfaction increased when the importance of their social and mental functioning as much as their physical functioning was acknowledged.
  • Time spent: Patient satisfaction rates improved as the length of the healthcare visit increases.
  • Clinical team: Although it is clear that the patient first concern is their clinician, they also value the team for which the clinician works.
  • Referrals: Patient satisfaction increases when their healthcare team initiates referrals relieving the patient of this responsibility.
  • Continuity of care: Patient satisfaction increases when they receive continuing care from the same healthcare provider(s).
  • Dignity: As expected, patients who are treated with respect and who are invited to partner in their healthcare decisions report greater satisfaction.

Patient Safety

  • An estimated one-third of adverse events are attributed to human error and system errors
  • Research conducted during the 10 year period of 1995-2005 has demonstrated that ineffective team communication is the root cause for nearly 66 percent of all medical errors during that period.
  • This means that when health care team members do not communicate effectively, patient care often suffers.
  • Further, medical error vulnerability is increased when healthcare team members are under stress, are in high-task situations, and when they are not communicating clearly or effectively.

Team Satisfaction
Why is team satisfaction important?

  • Communication among healthcare team members influences the quality of working relationships, job satisfaction and profoundly impacts patient safety.
  • When communication about tasks and responsibilities are done well, research evidence has shown significant reduction in nurse turnover and improved job satisfaction because it facilitates a culture of mutual support.
  • Larson and Yao found a direct relationship between clinicians’ level of satisfaction and their ability to build rapport and express care and warmth with patients.

What are the elements that contribute to healthcare team satisfaction:
Feeling supported, e.g., administratively and interpersonally, respected, valued, understood, listened to, having a clear understanding of role, work equity and fair compensation.

Malpractice Risk

  • According to Huntington and Kuhn, the “root cause” of malpractice claims is a breakdown in communication between physician and patient.
  • Previous research that examined plaintiff depositions found that 71% of the malpractice claims were initiated as a result of a physician-patient relationship problem. Closer inspection found that most litigious patients perceived their physician as uncaring. The same researchers found that one out of four plaintiffs in malpractice cases reported poor delivery of medical information, with 13% citing poor listening on the part of the physician.

Research evidence indicates that there are strong positive relationships between a healthcare team member’s communication skills and a patient’s capacity to follow through with medical recommendations, self-manage a chronic medical condition, and adopt preventive health behaviours. Studies show that the clinician’s ability to explain, listen and empathise can have a profound effect on biological and functional health outcomes as well as patient satisfaction and experience of care. Further, communication among healthcare team members influences the quality of working relationships, job satisfaction and has a profound impact on patient safety.

Clinicians and other members of the healthcare team conduct thousands of patient interactions during their careers.

The call to action from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report on Health Professions and Training underscores the importance of communication training for clinicians and members of the healthcare team. Similar to other healthcare procedures, communication skills can be learned and improved upon. Improvement in communication skills requires commitment and practice.

Given the wealth of evidence linking ineffective clinician-patient communication with increased malpractice risk, nonadherence, patient and clinician dissatisfaction, and poor patient health outcomes, the necessity of addressing communication skill deficits is of the utmost importance.

Dr Vivek Gopal

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