Everyone Needs Effective Communication Skills – Healthcare Professionals

I have learned many things during my last decade providing communications training to various clients.  One significant discovery is that everyone can benefit from developing good communication skills.  My students often share stories of how Intelligent Communication techniques were helpful in their personal as well as professional lives.  Additionally, companies consistently list communication among the top skills they are looking for in both new hires and promotion candidates.  So, I have begun exploring different professions to see how they could use improved communication skills.  I will be sharing what I have found in this and future blog articles.

Communication and Healthcare

I considered the healthcare industry and found that there is an identified need for improved communication skills.  Some industry experts suggest that communication failure, not medical skill, is at the root of most serious adverse health outcomes in hospitals.  Doctors and other healthcare professionals need good interpersonal skills to provide quality care to their patients.   LiveClinic Healthcare quotes Nirmal Joshi, chief medical officer for Pinnacle Health, who states, “A doctor’s ability to explain, listen and empathize has a profound impact on a patient’s care.”
Managed Care Magazine cites Sir William Osler, the most famous physician of his time, who counseled doctors over 100 years ago.  Dr. Osler told doctors of his day: “Listen to the patient: He is telling you the diagnosis.”  This simple advice is quite valid, but it provides only the first step in addressing the issue.  The looming question is “How?”  How should healthcare professionals interact with patients so that they can effectively treat them.  The challenge is made more difficult due to the short amount of time available to spend with a single patient during a routine appointment.  A report earlier this year in Business Insider citing Medscape put that time at between 13-16 minutes.  This calls for an effective and focused communication approach.

Communication Tips

One can find listings of communication skills doctors and other medical professionals should use.  For example, the LiveClinic Healthcare article cited above lists seven.

  1. Focus on the moment, and the person
  2. Use good eye contact
  3. Turn towards the person, but not too much
  4. Listen for the emotional tone
  5. Pause before replying
  6. Rephrase the main points
  7. Ask their view of what you have suggested

These are great and helpful tips, but medical professionals may still question exactly how and when to integrate them into their practice.

Intelligent Communication

Smart Talk Model

We would suggest adopting a simple and repeatable approach to communication that incorporates all these tips and more best practices.  This is the Intelligent Communication approach.  Our approach follows a simple model, we call Smart Talk (see graphic).  Smart Talk divides the communication process into three components.  The Guideline component includes context, the goal, and interim objectives.  The goal represents the ultimate goal and interim objectives are smaller goals that we must achieve to help us achieve the ultimate goal.  The other two components (Think and Feel and Say and Do) are just what their names suggest.  Think and Feel consists of four steps:  listening, thinking, feeling, and planning.  Within these three components we can use a variety of communication best practices.  Further, by following a repeatable and adaptable model like Smart Talk, we answer the when and how questions that communication tips alone cannot answer.

Integrating Communication Tips into Intelligent Communication

We do not have the time and space here to go over how to use the Smart Talk model in detail.  Instead, I thought we would use the model to briefly answer the “how” question related to the seven communication tips mentioned above.  This shows the benefit of using a model and not simply relying on a list of communication tips, no matter how good they are.  Further, applying tips within a model helps us to understand why we would use some communication tips during one interaction and not use them in another.

  1. Focus on the moment, and the person.  This tip would begin at context, as a recurring reminder prior to actually beginning the interaction with the patient.
  2. Use good eye contact. This tip is part of what we Say and Do, but it’s key purpose is to develop rapport. Building rapport would be an interim objective.  So, a medical professional should develop a number of repeatable techniques like this and tip #3, and use them early in the visit to build rapport.  Rapport opens up communication between patient and doctor.  Such open communication helps the doctor collect sufficient information to make an appropriate diagnosis (interim objective) and develop an effective treatment plan (goal).
  3. Turn towards the person, but not too much. This tip, like the previous one, is something we do to improve rapport and maintain an open dialogue.
  4. Listen for the emotional tone. Listening is a vital skill and it is something many doctors do not do well.  There is research that indicates that on average doctors interrupt patients only 18 seconds after they begin speaking.  Listening is part of what we Think and Feel in communication.  In addition, the feeling step in this part of Smart Talk includes applying empathy to develop greater understanding of the other person and his/her message.   The four steps of the Think and Feel process can help us identify emotional tone, as well as other clues that we would miss without such a careful listening process.
  5. Pause before replying. The fourth step in the Think and Feel process is planning.  This step reminds us to pause briefly to plan our next action, considering what we just processed through the other three steps.
  6. Rephrase the main points. This tip is part of Say and Do and is a key part of active listening, a process that is built into the Smart Talk model.  It helps us validate our understanding of the other person and his/her message.  The decision to rephrase is one of the options we may choose when pausing and planning prior to responding.  This tip also enhances rapport, supporting one of our interim objectives.
  7. Ask their view of what you have suggested. This tip performs a similar function as the previous one.  It takes it a little further by seeking direct confirmation from the other person.  This tip will also contribute to building rapport.  It is important, however, to ask good questions.  Open-ended questions, using basic interrogatives are generally appropriate.  There are times and purposes, however, for other types of questions.  We determine the right question as a result of working through the four steps of Think and Feel.

Intelligent Communication and Smart Talk

At first glance, following a model for effective communication may appear mechanical and restrictive.  This has not been the experience of the hundreds of students to whom I have taught the model over the past decade.  They found the model easy to apply and generally began using it right after learning it.  They found that having a model to follow helped them begin using communication tips more quickly, so they were able to realize the benefits of improved communication immediately.
Can Intelligent Communication can help your organization become more effective in their communication?  Contact me by completing the form on our homepage or email me directly.  We look forward to sharing with you more about our training and services.
As noted above, listening is key to good communication.  That is why I always encourage my students to be swift to hear and slow to speak.
Photo by hang_in_there

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