Career advice

Refresh your approach to communicating with patients

We all know that good communication skills are crucial, but it's easy to slip into bad habits. Here's a quick refresher

In health care, effective communication can directly affect positive outcomes. Ineffective or poor communication can cost lives, be it by a missed diagnosis, a medication error or treatment delay.

Julie Parry, a registered nurse and managing director of Cordant Occupational Health Services, says: ‘We need to be aware of the barriers in communication, such as language, age, gender and different cultures; how do we overcome these? Do we ask for feedback from colleagues and patients in how we are perceived, or do we rush, pre-judge, bark orders, avoid eye contact or cross our arms defensively?’

Picture credit: Jim Varney

For Ms Parry, communication techniques must start with listening – hearing what is being said, and also reading between the lines.

‘Effective listening and observation require a conscientious effort to understand what the individual is trying to communicate to you,’ she says. ‘You need to be focused, not rushed or distracted. This extends to colleagues, patients and family alike. Put down the phone, stop multitasking and listen.’


Listen, listen, listen.

Read between the lines.

Be honest.

Be appropriate and know your audience.

Be simple and clear in imparting information.

Be positive and encouraging.

Be aware of barriers, behaviours and differences.


Use unnecessary jargon.

Be judgmental or give personal opinions.

Be defensive.

Interrupt when someone is talking.

Put words in people's mouths.



Source: Julie Parry, managing director, Cordant Occupational Health Services

Putting words into people’s mouths and interrupting will lead to misunderstandings, misperceptions and confusion, she adds.

Hays Healthcare director Simon Hudson says effective communication requires a suitable style for your audience. ‘Deliver clear, technical messages to your colleagues about patient needs and care. Speak in a clear manner without technical jargon or internal acronyms to service users so they can fully understand information.’

With patients or with colleagues, always make eye contact and speak concisely, says Nick Simpson, chief executive of healthcare recruiter MSI Group. ‘If in any doubt whether you have been understood, it is important to ask. A simple “is there anything else you would like me to explain?” or “do you have everything you need?” works wonders.’

The same applies to written communication: fact-based evidence needs to be presented in a clear and accurate format, advises Ms Parry. ‘Taking notes and writing records as soon as you can after delivering the care is vital to avoid omissions,’ she says.

Mr Simpson agrees: ‘Always ensure records are updated in real time; don’t wait until the end of your shift. Make sure every detail is recorded. You never know when a seemingly inconspicuous observation will become salient – even years down the line.’

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