Effective patient communication skills is one of the most important, and yet undervalued, skills that any practice can gain. In the healthcare industry, we spend a huge part of our day communicating with patients. Our patient communication skills are put to the test almost constantly—often without us even realizing it. We communicate with patients in a variety of ways, from writing to speaking to body language. The International Journal of Business Communication published a study looking at the most important skill of employees and the overwhelming answer was effective communication skills. Unfortunately, it is also the number one incompetency on the list! Fortunately, it is never too late to learn how to develop strong patient communication skills. Here are the most important aspects of patient communication. Consider picking one or two of these techniques and work on those until you've mastered them and then move on to the next. Before you know it, you'll have the patient communication skills of a Jedi-master.
1. Listen more than you talk. The importance of listening cannot be overstated. One of the most critical parts of being a good patient communicator is the ability to actively listen to what your patients are saying...and what they might not be saying. Active listening improves trust and rapport between two people. When you practice active listening, you're not just waiting for a person to stop talking so that you can respond, but you are truly seeking to understand the motivation and feeling behind the communication. This article has some fantastic tips to get you started with active listening. One thing that you can try right away is to rephrase what a patient has said to you. For example, after listening to a patient's concern, you can paraphrase what they said by starting with phrases like, "What I'm hearing is... ," or "Sounds like you are saying... ."
2. Watch your body language. The other day, my son was busy playing when it was time to clean up. While he reluctantly agreed to put away his toys, his body language was SHOUTING at me that he was upset. When I talked to him about how grumpy he was, he insisted that he wasn't being cranky. He was completely unaware that his body language was giving him away. Unfortunately, we are all a little like my son at times. While we are saying all the right things, our body language is saying the opposite. If you are in a confrontational conversation with a patient, take a minute to consciously relax. Avoid fidgeting. Nod occasionally to show the patient that you are actively listening. Try to avoid crossing your legs. For more suggestions on improving your body language, read this.
3. Be friendly. Whether it is through your tone or your smile, being friendly in your communication draws patients in and makes them feel more comfortable. Patient satisfaction levels depend on it. Being kind and polite is critical in both face-to-face and written communication. This can be a bit trickier in writing. So whenever you can, add a friendly note like "Happy Monday!" in an email to better convey a friendly, welcoming tone in writing.
4. Personalize your communication. No one wants to feel like just a number. Make a conscious effort to use a person's name and make eye contact when speaking with them. Try to remember things that have been going on in a patient's life and ask about it (a hint for this is to jot things you learn at previous visits down in their file so you have it next time). And while multi-tasking is an must-have skill for every practice, never multi-task while speaking to a patient. Give that patient your full attention.
5. Seek to understand their point-of-view. There will always be times when patients are rude, demanding, or unreasonable. Our natural response is often to shut down and "fight" our way out. But, even if you disagree with what the patient is saying, it is important to try to empathize with them so you can understand where they are coming from. Many times patients just need to feel heard. Use your active listening skills to rephrase what they are saying. You can also say, "I understand where you are coming from and can see you are frustrated." Many potentially tense situations can be defused by remaining calm and being open-minded rather than defensive.
Developing strong patient communication skills is one of the most important aspects of practice management. Using the right communication techniques can help you retain more patients, improve your image, and defuse difficult situations. It is worth the effort!
For more ideas on improving your communication with patients, check out the guide, "The Secret Sauce to Patient Satisfaction."