Oct 28, 2019 8:42:33 AM Benjamin Pure

The Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Patient Communication

Whether on a personal or professional level, communication is hard. Things get even more complicated when it involves talking to a person in a state of distress triggered by a life-threatening diagnosis.

Yet, despite the well known impact of communication breakdowns on the quality of healthcare, many providers still have a long way to go before they can effectively talk (and listen) to their patients.


81% of patients think communication makes a difference in treatment


53% of Americans function at an intermediate health literacy level, while 36% on basic or below basic


The No-nos of Patient Communication

Studies have shown that poor communication in healthcare can lead to patient dissatisfaction, medication non-adherence, and negative health outcomes. But what is ‘poor communication’? Let’s examine some examples.

Using Medical Jargon

An efficient communicator always aligns the way of speaking to the audience, including by adjusting vocabulary to remove comprehension barriers. Patients don’t need to be aware of complex medical terms, and it’s your responsibility as a doctor or a nurse to ensure the diagnosis and guidelines for treatment are clearly conveyed.

Don’t confuse your patients with cryptic, highly-specialized medical language. Instead, speak in plain English. For example, get rid of words such as “hypertension,” “eczema,” and “edema” in your patient communication dictionary, and replace them with “high blood pressure,” “rash,” and “swelling” (see a list of resources below to discover more examples). Just be careful, and don’t go as far as to patronize the other person. 

Research reveals that 30% of patients in the U.S. don’t understand the meaning of ‘benign’. 

Bombarding Patients with Information

The patient-doctor interaction is often the case of too much, too quickly. This problem frequently stems from a more complex issue, which is doctors’ burnout and work overload. Instead of approaching every patient individually and with due care and respect, healthcare professionals are rushing through visits, pressed for time and conscious of unreasonable schedules. 

While this is a subject for a separate discussion, dedicating your undivided attention to patients as a doctor or a nurse is compulsory for building a good rapport with them. Even if the situation is urgent, your communication should be logical, organized, and delivered at a measured pace. Also, be mindful of accent differences that may impede understanding. Observe your patient reaction closely to verify if any information needs clarification. 

Not Listening 

The doctors’ failure to listen ranks among  the top patient complaints. It’s estimated that an average physician lets the patient talk for less than 20 seconds before cutting in. Is this enough time to collect exhaustive information about the complexities of a person’s health?

There’s no other way to bridge this communication gap than to sit down and listen to your patients without interrupting or looking at a computer screen. Remove all distractions like inbox notifications or a ringing phone (we can help), and focus on your interlocutors. Make sure you’ve given them a chance to ask all questions before they leave your office.

According to WebMD, 75% of doctors believe that they communicate satisfactorily with their patients, while only 21% of the people treated by these doctors agree

Patient Communication - How to Do It Well?

By acknowledging the critical role of efficient communication on patient outcomes, healthcare workers can improve their communication skills and create meaningful patient engagement that translates into improved treatment outcomes. Here’s how to do it:

Get to Know Your Patient

Efficient patient communication is anchored in a strong interpersonal relationship with a healthcare provider. Meaningful interaction between the two sides streamline treatment and improve patient engagement levels. 

When a new patient visits, introduce yourself and explain your role in the treatment. Maintain eye contact as you talk and pay attention to the patient’s concerns and behavior. Ask basic introductory questions to establish a good rapport from the very first moment. 

Encourage Interaction 

Your goal is to help patients resolve their health concerns. They are looking to receive optimal treatment in terms of time, cost, and health outcomes. Instead of treating your patients as customers, try approaching as partners in achieving a common objective.

  • Provide your patients with recommendations and resources to support their journey toward healing.
  • Create a collaborative atmosphere by listening attentively, building trust, and influencing your patients to adopt healthy living or lifestyle change. 
  • Encourage questions and note-taking to ensure your patients are well-equipped to take care of their health while you’re not around.

Leverage Technology

Doctor-patient communication occurs on many levels apart from face-to-face interaction. Technology enhances communication between you and your patients by providing a chance to continuously monitor and report on patient health across a variety of channels.

Remember about the use of EHR, patient portal systems, and call answering services to provide patient assistance across multiple touchpoints. Regardless of the channel used, ensure that the information provided is consistent and presented in a simple, comprehensible manner.

Patient Communication Resources

If you are confident about your communication skills, keep up with the good work! However, if you feel there’s still some room for improvement, here’s a list of resources that might be of help:

  • Effective Communication Skills for Doctors (Progressing Your Medical Career) | T. Parrott, G. Crook – a self-development guide for doctors  who want to improve their communication skills within a hospital environment.
  • Communication Rx: Transforming Healthcare Through Relationship-Centered Communication | C. Chou  L. Cooley – the book contains compounded knowledge and experience of communication experts from The Academy of Communication in Healthcare who now share their insights in a practical step-by-step guide.
  • Plain Language Thesaurus | National Center for Health Marketing – this medical thesaurus provides alternatives to the most frequent medical terms in plain English.
  • Duke University Medical Center Library & Archives - a list of materials and resources that help doctors and other healthcare professionals simplify how they speak.

The Bottom Line

Interpersonal skills are often being downplayed in therapy, as secondary to medical knowledge and experience. The truth is, from the patient’s perspective, they are just as relevant. Engaging patients in their treatment boosts health outcomes, and high engagement rates are contingent on the patient understanding of their condition and treatment plan. 

Can we help you enhance communication with patients? The Doctors Answer is a HIPAA-compliant answering services provider with over 20 years of experience in call handling. As we serve the medical community only, we have what it takes to offer your patients accurate and expedient help whenever they need it. Get in touch with us to find out more.