If you’re working in a health or social care environment, good communication skills are incredibly important. To discharge your duties properly and mitigate the risk of a medical mishap, you will need to be able to talk patients through complicated procedures, empathise with their concerns and answer any questions in a sympathetic manner and potentially even diffuse emotional confrontations or help people to calm down when they’re stressed or angry.
According to the USA’s Institute for Healthcare Communication, good communication skills can also help you to create better outcomes for your patients, by getting them to engage with their treatment and take an interest in managing the condition that they’re struggling with.
This could be as simple as persuading someone who’s suffering with heart disease to think about trying to lose weight, or as complex as helping someone wrestling with a medical dilemma to find a solution that actually makes them feel happy and safe. The point is that knowing how to talk to someone - and how to engage with them in a productive way - can radically alter the patient’s experience and potentially change their lives.
It’s not just about patients either. If you’re working in a healthcare environment, you’ll also need to be able to communicate effectively with colleagues and co-workers. Several studies have shown that poor communication skills can lead to healthcare practitioners ordering the wrong tests, prescribing the wrong medicines, or discharging patients that should have been kept overnight.
Data provided by the Nursing Times, the UK’s leading healthcare magazine, sets the cost of these mistakes at approximately £1 billion per year, so learning how to communicate with coworkers and colleagues should be a top priority for anyone that’s working in the healthcare industry.
The question is, how can you develop your communication skills, and learn to engage with patients and co-workers in a more productive way?
To help you get started, we’re going to look at a few ways of developing your communication skills and explore some of the strategies you can use to mitigate harm or improve your patient’s experience.
Good communication isn’t an innate ability. It’s a learned skill, which you can improve by working to understand a few basic principles.
Firstly, it’s important to understand the importance of clarity. Patients struggle to understand complicated medical concepts. This means that a lot of the words you use in your day-to-day duties could well confuse your patients. As such, it’s important to start every encounter by assessing your patient/carer’s level of understanding, before trying to relate information, in a way that they’re likely to grasp.
You should always ask if they’ve understood everything you’re saying, because this gives your patients a chance to ask for additional details and mitigates the risk of misunderstandings. Asking if people have understood what you’re trying to tell them - and offering to explain further - also helps to show that you value the patient/carer and are happy to spend more time meeting their needs.
Note: This advice also applies to coworkers and colleagues, particularly if you are delegating a task, or find yourself on the other side of the conversation and don’t fully understand what’s being asked of you. Taking the time to ask questions and offering space for further discussion is one of the keys to good communication.
It’s also important to spend time listening to your patients, and thinking about what they’re trying to say. The Royal College of Nursing stress the importance of showing patients (and coworkers) that you’re really listening to them by giving non-verbal cues like head-nodding, which helps to encourage communication and build rapport. Many healthcare courses will cover this too.
Finally, it’s important to stay calm and collected at all times. Even if patients (or coworkers) are complaining about the care you’ve given, or talking to you in a way that feels aggressive or confrontational.
Further training will help you to improve these skills, and enable you to deliver a higher standard of care to all of your charges. If you work in a health or social care environment and you’d like to further develop your communication skills, you may be interested in our course on communication in a health and social care environment. This course will help you to refine your approach to emotionally charged situations and equip you with the skills needed to deliver consistently excellent care. You can read more about it here.