A doctor conducting a patient-centered communication examination with an elderly woman.

What is Patient Centered Communication?

No doubt about it: Strong communication skills are essential to delivering quality care to patients. After all, patients are people with feelings, histories, and social contexts–all of which play a role in their well-being. When healthcare professionals use patient centered communication to reach patients in an empathetic way, they make patients feel like partners in their care. When that happens, patients are more likely to comply with treatment protocols and experience better health outcomes.

That’s a big reason why patient centered communication is growing in importance. But it’s not the only benefit of using a patient centered approach. When patients feel heard and valued, they are more likely to be satisfied with their experiences with their medical providers. As patient satisfaction goes up, practices gain a better reputation and more referrals–which leads to increased revenue.

How can you put the principles of patient centered communication to work in your practice? Understanding the definition is a good first step, along with gaining awareness of the barriers that cause some clinicians to fall short at delivering patient centered communication.

You can also learn about simple techniques you can apply to build relationships with patients. And you can understand how using technology tools can streamline tasks and give you more time to focus on patient centered care. 

Learning Patient Centered Communication Fundamentals

What is patient centered communication? This definition from the Pharmacy sums up the concept:

“A patient centered approach to communication is to acknowledge the whole person, their personality, life history, and social structure to develop a shared understanding of the problem, the goals of treatment, and the barriers to that treatment and wellness.”

There are three primary goals of patient centered communication:

  • Listening to and understanding patient perspectives, such as their concerns, ideas, and emotions
  • Understanding the patient’s unique psychological, social, and cultural  context
  • Achieving a shared understanding of conditions, treatment goals, and possible health outcomes

Traditionally, medical school education hasn’t always taken a “whole person” approach to care. Instead, schools have focused primarily on teaching the science of medicine. But today’s leading medical programs recognize that medicine is part art and part science. Those forward-thinking programs specifically integrate coursework to teach the next generation of physicians critical communications skills, such as listening and responding with compassion and empathy.

If you’ve been in the medical field for a while, you may not have had specific training on patient centered communication. Even if you haven’t taken a course, you can still put some patient communication principles into practice. 

For example, during an initial interview with a patient, don’t just seek facts and data about the patient’s symptom or disease. Instead, aim to build a rapport, show respect for the patient, and clarify his or her needs. The goal is to show that you aren’t just present to care for the patient but that you also care about the patient. Your aim should be to have patients understand their conditions and feel like they are partners in decision-making about treatments.

These communication skills don’t come naturally to every clinician, but everyone can grow. It’s helpful to understand what stands in the way of high-quality patient communication and know the steps you can take to improve.

What Are the Primary Barriers to Patient Centered Communication?

If you are building your patient centered communication skills, you should reflect on what may be holding you back. There are three common reasons why health care  practitioners fall short in delivering patient-centric communication.

Perceived Lack of Time

Without question, health care is a fast-paced field, no matter your role. It’s easy to focus on the next patient and checking off items on the daily to-do list instead of taking time to build rapport with patients. Clinicians may not give patients enough time to articulate their experiences or express their needs.

Also, medical conditions can be very complex and difficult for patients to understand.  Clinicians can feel pressured to keep up with their schedule and short-change important discussions about conditions and treatments.

Speaking with Data Instead of About Patient Experiences

Medical practitioners are used to evaluating conditions based on data. But the results of various medical tests may not have much meaning to patients. Instead, patients are most aware of how they feel and how their symptoms affect their day-to-day lives.

When physicians only discuss data and relay that information as a sign of how a patient’s condition is progressing, the patient may not fully understand. A better choice is discussing how a condition affects the patient’s quality of life and relating to things that matter to the patient, such as work, leisure activities, and relationships.

An Outdated Mindset

Certainly, physicians and others in the medical field have in-depth knowledge and years of training. Many are used to being the authoritative expert in the room when having discussions with patients. Even so, clinicians are not experts on patients’ lives or their unique personal experiences of injury or disease.

4 Ways to Improve Patient Centered Communication

The good news is that there are proven techniques that help health care professionals improve their patient centered communication skills. You can start putting these practices to work today to deliver more effective care to your patients.

Give Patients Time to Articulate their Experiences

The first principle of patient centered communication is patience. Instead of focusing on the next tasks or the next appointment, be present with each patient when conversing with them. Remember that some patients may have difficulty explaining their symptoms due to language barriers, age, or infirmity.

Ask open-ended questions and let them speak about their experiences. Don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions about how patients feel. Let them feel validated and heard.

Give Patients Proper Respect

Ask patients how they prefer to be addressed and make an effort to pronounce their names correctly. When possible, give them choices in their care. Aim for a consultative tone instead of being imposing or directive. Help all patients maintain their dignity.

Consider Your Body Language

Convey a message of collaboration and partnership by putting your body on the same level as patients when speaking with them. Always face them instead of looking in another direction to show that you’re attentive to their experience. Make eye contact with patients to let them know you’re placing your full attention on them.

Keep Conversations Simple

Instead of peppering your conversations with jargon and data, use words that patients will understand. Keep your conversations short and stay on topic. Remember: give patients ample time to ask questions. It’s important to make sure that patients feel comfortable asking informed questions about their health.

How Digital Tools Can Help You Enhance Patient Communication

Every medical organization is a complex operation. It’s easy to get bogged down with repetitive work and miss opportunities to connect with clients. By implementing a practice management solution, you save time and focus more on delivering quality care to your patients.

Automates Routine Tasks

Today’s advanced practice management solutions can eliminate many labor-intensive tasks. Offer your patients options to book appointments online and send out automated appointment reminders instead of placing follow-up calls. You can also offer mobile check-in and let patients fill out necessary online forms in advance. By automating tasks like these, you can eliminate busy work and put more emphasis on patient experience.

Provides Patient Education Opportunities

When patients understand their medical condition and treatments, they are more likely to comply with care plans. Even if you’ve had a thorough one-on-one discussion with patients, giving them access to educational materials through a patient portal is valuable. That way, patients can learn on their own time, in the comfort of their own homes. They’ll feel empowered, informed, and engaged as a full partner in their care.

Another way to educate patients is through regular emails. You can send out monthly newsletters summarizing the latest research or new treatment opportunities. Also, you can use email as a tool to remind patients about positive ways to support health and well-being.

Improve the Patient Experience

Many patients use technology in every aspect of their day-to-day lives, from working to shopping to banking. They expect their medical practitioners’ offices to be up-to-date with technology. Offering a comprehensive patient portal can give patients more access to information and help them take charge of their health.

A robust patient portal can be a one-stop-shop for patients. They can use the portal to book or cancel appointments online, sign up for emails or reminders, and complete intake forms. Also, you can offer them secure two-way messaging so that they can keep in touch with your team between visits. That way, they can receive prompt yet private responses to questions without making a phone call.

Creating a Better Patient Experience Requires Strong Communications Skills

Medicine is a fast-paced, high-pressure field. Clinical skills will always be important, but patient centered communication is just as vital.

What can you do to deliver quality patient centered communication? First, reflect on what may be holding you back. Then, follow some fundamental practices, like giving patients time to articulate their experience, making eye contact, and using simple language.

If patient centered communication feels like an extra burden in your already-busy days, consider all the effort you can save with patient communication tools. Your practice can automate many routine tasks and stay connected with patients between visits. By streamlining patient communication, you can make patients feel more in control of their health and make it easier for them to engage with your office.

With quality clinician communication, everybody wins. Your patients will understand their health and medical conditions, and your practice will gain a reputation as a patient centered organization.

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