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GuidesPatient experienceA guide to patient-centered communication

A guide to patient-centered communication

Last updated

27 June 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

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Healthcare is a delicate area of expertise, so effective patient communication is key to providing great healthcare services in every medical facility.

Patients need to be comfortable in their environment and open with their healthcare providers. That’s where patient-centered communication comes in.

Understanding how to communicate with patients effectively encourages healthcare providers to provide helpful, insightful, and competent care. It also minimizes the barrier of understanding between a patient and caregiver.

What is patient-centered communication?

A recent study showed that over 440,000 people lose their lives yearly because of preventable clinical errors in US hospitals. This makes clinical errors the third largest cause of mortality in the US after cancer and heart disease. Open communication with patients can help reduce errors.

Patient-centered communication is a form of care where the patient’s needs are the first priority in every interaction. It allows healthcare providers to interact with patients comfortably, considering their needs and best interests. As such, it involves open-ended questions and allowing the patient to dominate conversations.

The healthcare environment is fast-paced and highly sensitive because patients don’t know the outcome of situations. This can cause anxiety and fear, exacerbating poor doctor–patient communication.

Listening to a patient makes them feel heard in an environment where they have little control. They can express their feelings about their situation and surroundings, reducing any anxiety and fear they might experience in a medical setting. This leads to healthcare providers gleaning more information from their patients, helping them make faster and more accurate diagnoses.

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What are the four types of communication in healthcare?

Here are the types of communication in healthcare:

  • Verbal communication: speaking aloud with a patient either in person, via a video call, or by telephone.

  • Non-verbal communication or body language: using gestures, body language, and facial expressions to convey information to a patient.

  • Written communication: this could be a prescription, email, or referral letter.

  • Formal communication: conveying information to patients using photos, drawings, charts, art, sketches, and graphs.

The importance of good doctor–patient communication

Good doctor–patient communication is vital in every medical facility. It has many benefits, including the following:

Leads to positive healthcare outcomes

Open and effective doctor–patient communication improves overall healthcare outcomes. It empowers patients after receiving treatment and boosts their psychological, physical, and emotional health. This leads to faster recovery and improved quality of life.

Minimizes the risk of medical malpractice

There has been a rise in medical malpractices resulting from negligence and unethical practices. Many of these cases result from poor communication and misunderstandings, leading to increased complaints against doctors, conflicts between patients and healthcare providers, and even lawsuits.

Good doctor–patient communication can help reduce medical malpractice, complaints, and lawsuits.

Improves patient satisfaction

Good doctor–patient communication has been proven to have therapeutic effects similar to medication. It also reduces patient dissatisfaction. When a patient believes their healthcare provider understands and empathizes with them, they are more likely to be satisfied with the diagnosis and recommended treatment plan.

Establishes a doctor–patient relationship

The doctor–patient relationship is very important as it’s built on trust, which is at the heart of medical professionalism.

Poor doctor–patient communication could lead patients to mistrust or doubt their doctor’s guidance, leading to poor health progress or outcomes. That’s why communication training is required of all doctors.

Challenges in patient communication

Here are some challenges healthcare professionals may face when developing and implementing patient-centered communication skills:

Time limitations

Healthcare is a fast-paced field, regardless of your role or department. Attending to one patient and moving on to the next without taking the time to build a relationship with them can be the easiest approach. However, this denies patients the time and space they need to express their thoughts and experiences.

Additionally, medical conditions and treatment procedures can be difficult to explain to patients and sometimes too complex for them to understand. Medical practitioners, who are often trying to keep up with their busy schedules, may choose simple and short explanations over a detailed breakdown of the patient’s health condition and treatment options. This is not a patient-centered approach to communication.

Outdated perceptions

Medical professionals have years of training and in-depth knowledge of medicine. Many are used to being the expert or person of authority when talking to a patient. However, this doesn’t make them experts in patients’ lives. A communication barrier can occur if the patient feels their story doesn’t matter.

Overreliance on data instead of the patient’s actual experiences

Medical practitioners mostly use data to evaluate conditions and treatments. However, medical test results, numbers, and percentages don’t mean anything to patients without similar expertise. Most only understand their symptoms and the impact on their daily lives.

Doctors relaying data to patients is not an effective way to communicate. Instead, the best approach is to discuss how the condition affects the patient’s life, work, lifestyle, and hobbies. This can then help them understand how treatment will make them better.

What are the five fundamentals of patient communication?

AIDET is the acronym commonly used when discussing the five fundamentals of doctor–patient communication. It can be expanded into the following terms:

Acknowledge

This step involves acknowledging the patient and their family. As a healthcare professional, you should make eye contact, smile, and greet the patient by name. Stop whatever you are doing and give the patient your full attention. This establishes a positive environment and tone, creating to rapport with the patient.

Introduce

During the introduction step, you’ll introduce yourself by your name, specialization, and role. You should also state your title, qualifications, and experience in the related field. This shows you acknowledge your role in the patient’s care. In turn, the patient will acknowledge your competence and skills.

Duration

The duration step involves estimating how long the patient’s consultation or medical procedure will take. Tell them how long they will wait for things to happen; for example, how long they will wait for the physician to arrive, for a treatment to be administered, or for test results to be delivered. This gives the patient a sense of control and helps manage their anxiety and expectations.

Explanation

You should explain a diagnosis to the patient step by step, outlining what will happen and what they should expect. Use plain language to explain test results, procedures, and interventions to the patient and their family. Allow them to ask questions and answer them as truthfully and simply as possible. Don’t assume they know everything. Good patient–provider communication is possible when the patient is knowledgeable.

Thank you

The last step involves expressing gratitude to the patient and their family for choosing the medical facility and for their patience and cooperation. Thanking them helps establish a positive experience and leaves a lasting impression.

Patient-centered communication: basic skills

Below are the three basic skills you need to implement patient-centered communication:

Expressing empathy

Empathy creates a healing relationship founded on doctor–patient understanding and interactions in the medical field. Here’s how you can achieve empathetic communication:

  • Listening to the patient without interruption

  • Validating the patient’s feelings

  • Pausing to enter the patient’s world

  • Reflecting on what they say to show you’re listening to them

  • Offering support and solutions

  • Following up on the patient’s progress after a specific time

Communicating a diagnosis

The diagnostic process also involves explaining your patient’s health problem. You can use medical terms, but ensure you explain them in a way your patient and their family can understand. Ensure the patient has understood the diagnosis and ask if they have questions about next steps.

Shared decision-making

Shared decision-making is important for patient-centered communication. Patients and medical caregivers work together to make treatment decisions and care plans that balance risks and outcomes per the individual’s preferences and values.

You might apply this technique when your patient has a choice of medical treatments. It allows them to air their concerns and opinions and feel more in control.

Practice patient-centered communication for better healthcare outcomes and patient satisfaction

Good communication skills are especially important in the medical field, where healthcare providers communicate with worried patients and families.

Patient-centered communication is needed to help patients relax and communicate effectively with their doctors. Empathetic doctor–patient communication can help medical practitioners serve patients better, resulting in improved healthcare outcomes and patient satisfaction.

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