GuidesPatient experienceA guide to effective communication in any healthcare setting

A guide to effective communication in any healthcare setting

Last updated

19 July 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

In all healthcare facilities, good communication is paramount to the success of patient care. It influences patient satisfaction, ensures quality referrals, and supports team effectiveness.

A well-run hospital or clinic owes at least part of its success to effective communication.

What is effective communication in healthcare?

Communication in healthcare can have life-or-death consequences. Patients must feel safe enough to communicate openly with their providers to receive effective treatment.

Effective communication in a healthcare setting means:

  • Patients are comfortable speaking honestly about their health habits and concerns.

  • Providers convey treatment plans and health education clearly and empathetically so patients can receive optimal care.

  • Administrators and providers share information responsibly, protecting patient confidentiality.

  • Healthcare organizations apply culturally responsive measures to bridge communication gaps.

Healthcare providers must be aware of: 

  • The types of communication common to healthcare

  • The barriers to communication

  • Strategies for effective communication 

This is the best way to improve and maintain communication with patients and between coworkers.

Why is communication so important in healthcare?

Ineffective communication compromises the quality of healthcare, increasing negative patient outcomes and the costs of healthcare. 

For example, if a patient is embarrassed to open up about a symptom, the provider won't know enough about it to recommend treatment. 

If the provider doesn't ensure the patient fully understands how to manage an illness or medication at home, the consequences could be dire or require additional treatment.   

Good communication in healthcare ensures patients get the care they need. 

How to determine if communication is effective

For communication to be effective, it must get its point across. Communication is effective when a patient's condition improves due to medical advice and treatment.

Healthcare communication is effective if:

  • Patients can thoroughly convey their health complaints to their providers.

  • Healthcare workers can adequately comprehend that information to provide treatment.

  • Providers can decrease the risk of recurring healthcare complaints by conveying adequate information on preventative measures for patients to maintain their health.

Effective communication in a healthcare setting begins with recognizing the importance of listening. Communication is effective when providers help patients feel heard, ease their fears, and encourage them to disclose relevant information.

Interhospital vs. intrahospital communication

To ensure patient safety, well-being, and confidentiality, healthcare organizations use two types of communication methods:

Interhospital communication

Interhospital communication centers around information sharing between healthcare facilities. These facilities may or may not be part of the same organization. 

When hospitals move patients from one facility to another, they must share medical records and vital medical equipment.

Intrahospital communication

Intrahospital communication involves sharing information within a single institution. This may involve: 

  • Coordinating room changes

  • Scheduling surgeries,

  • Assigning tests

  • Setting up appointments

  • Patient follow-ups 

When staff members, nurses, doctors, and administrators effectively share information, the efficiency of the entire treatment process increases. This prevents delays, extra costs, and potentially dangerous mistakes.

Ensuring effective communication between healthcare professionals 

To ensure effective communication between healthcare professionals:

Assess the current method of communication

Gaps in communication can result in costly and even fatal mistakes. Take inventory of what works and what doesn't work.

Streamline channels of communication

Communication should be complete but simple. Eliminate unnecessary information or communication steps that are confusing and time-consuming to navigate.

Encourage mobile collaboration between colleagues

Real-time messaging saves time when almost every employee uses a mobile device. Top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer communication via a mobile team app streamlines communication while keeping patient information confidential.

Allow healthcare employees to have a voice

Everyone should have the same opportunity to express concerns, needs, and wants. 

Prioritize face-to-face communication 

In-person meetings are critical to establishing and maintaining effective communication between peers. When team members communicate face-to-face, they can feel heard and know their efforts are valued.

Barriers to communication in healthcare

Even when facilities try to be proactive with communication, they may experience barriers:

Common language barriers

Some patients have difficulty communicating their symptoms simply because they speak a different language from their providers. 

Healthcare organizations should supply interpreters to bridge communication gaps between patients and providers. Those who don’t work around language barriers fall short of delivering adequate support to their communities.

Patient distrust

Patients may feel uncomfortable disclosing sensitive information to their care providers. 

Some may feel intimidated or believe that the provider will not listen. They may question medical advice in general or struggle with physical or psychological trauma. 

Other patients may feel disrespected when asked to disclose personal health information.

Mismanaged healthcare files 

With an ever-growing amount of healthcare data and so many professionals needing to access a single patient's file, it can be difficult to close the door to miscommunication. 

Providers and administrators must work hard to ensure patient files remain confidential and limit how many people have access to patient information.

Providers stretched too thin

A packed clinical workday often requires providers to race through appointments. Providers who appear distracted when communicating with patients can come across as cold and uncaring. This can irreparably damage the patient-provider relationship. 

Despite being overworked, providers can use evidence-based strategies to streamline communication but still have a few extra minutes to listen to their patients.  

Strategies for effective communication in healthcare

To overcome the barriers to effective communication, healthcare personnel can use proven strategies.

Sit down and be humble

No one wants to be talked down to, especially when they aren't feeling well. Getting on eye level and being humble with patients helps them to feel heard. 

Patients and providers can build trust more easily when they sit down together during office visits and hospital check-ins. This can quell patient anxiety.

Speak in plain English

Save the medical jargon for colleagues. Providers must use plain language that is easily understood when communicating with patients

This approach lets the patient know that the provider is interested in a two-way conversation rather than just delivering a monologue. Providers should define medical terms clearly when jargon is appropriate.

Ask open-ended questions

Even after a few minutes of empathetic conversation, patients sometimes feel uncomfortable voicing their concerns. 

Providers should ask whether patients have more to say or if there is anything else they would like to talk about. 

The BATHE technique helps solicit more information and develop rapport with patients:

  • Background: Ask what's currently going on in the patient's life and with their health.

  • Affect: Find out how the patient's health concerns are affecting them.

  • Trouble: Ask about their health and what obstacles they foresee to getting better.

  • Handling: Ask the patient about how they are handling their health situation.

  • Empathy: Show patients that you are listening and care about their health by reflecting what you hear them saying.

Providers asking questions and truly listening ensures effective communication in healthcare.  

Hire interpreters and culturally competent staff at every level

Healthcare settings should be safe spaces for anyone who needs treatment. 

Organizations must not tolerate racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, or any other form of discrimination.  

Being heard by healthcare providers is a basic right for all patients. Interpreters help health organizations recognize and fulfill this right which is essential for culturally competent and effective treatment. 

Healthcare facilities should hire interpreters as needed to ensure all patients can communicate their concerns effectively. 

Keep communications confidential

Communication in healthcare can cause stress for many patients. Areas that can impact patient satisfaction and treatment outcomes include: 

  • Understanding providers' instructions 

  • Billing situations 

  • Communication between colleagues

Just because an entire hospital wing may be able to access a patient's file, that doesn't mean they should. 

Individual case files should be limited to patient care team members. They should avoid casually discussing the patient’s file with those outside the team.


What is the role of communication in healthcare?

Efficient communication in healthcare ensures better outcomes for patients. 

Providers must listen and understand what their patients are telling them, and patients need to be willing to reciprocate. Only then can healthcare communication improve.

The result of better healthcare communication is more efficient healthcare delivery.

What are some benefits of culturally sensitive communication in healthcare situations? 

Culturally sensitive communication encourages patient participation and engagement with the healthcare provider. Patients who feel respected and understood are more likely to trust the provider and communicate delicate healthcare concerns.

Improved understanding leads to better patient outcomes. 

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