Overcoming communication barriers to provide better care for patients

Originally written for SCG Innovation Institute.

Communication is one of the most essential processes in exchanging information in the healthcare sector.  When it comes to patients, there can often be communication barriers.  These barriers often have the potential to temporarily limit the level of care provided to patients in some settings.  After all, without the ability to communicate issues to a healthcare provider, the provider must then use alternative, sometimes time consuming methods (such as scans or testing) to ascertain what the issue is.

Common communication barriers between patients and providers include the location of birth, spoken and written language, religion and culture, and even level of education.  All of these have the potential to affect how the patient speaks and conveys their message to their healthcare provider.

It is human nature to allow our expectations to influence what we hear when we communicate with others.  It is important to be aware of non-verbal communication methods which may assist when verbal communication is limited.  The three main things to be aware of in terms of non-verbal communication are:

  • The expression on the patient’s face. Observe this as they speak to you.
  • The tone of the patient’s voice.
  • Observe whether the patient’s face and tone of voice are responding to your words, or whether it appears that they are thinking of something else and responding to that instead.

Try to be aware of your own facial expressions and tone when addressing a patient in situations where there is a communication barrier.  Limit the use of language which is unsuitable or confusing to the patient, such as excessive medical terminology, acronyms, or complicated words.  By keeping your language as simple and to the point as possible, you have a greater chance of being able to communicate with your patient.

If you are communicating with a patient who has hearing difficulties, sit or stand in front of them at a close distance so that your facial expressions and lips can be easily seen.  Keep eye contact and use gestures to emphasise the points you are attempting to make.  Choose a place to talk to the patient where there is limited background noise, if possible, and be prepared to patiently repeat what you are saying.  Speak firmly, clearly and slowly so the patient has a greater chance of understanding what you are communicating to them.

If you are communicating with a patient who has speech difficulties, allow them the time to say what they wish to say and ask them closed questions (for example “Are you experiencing chest pain?” instead of “Can you tell me where you are experiencing pain?”).  Be supportive and encouraging, do not criticise any attempts at speech, and if applicable, offer the use of alternative written forms of communication such as paper and a pen or an alphabet board.

By being aware of simple methods of communication, such as those listed, there are many barriers to communication that can be overcome, enabling the healthcare provider to provide better care for their patients in a more efficient way.

Author: Rebecca Millar

Rebecca is a freelance PR and Communications Specialist, Author, Science Writer, and Star Trek fan with a fondness for caffeine and all things geek. When she's not getting her comms specialist on, she's usually introverting Trekkie style, studying her Masters in Astronomy, or at her local fire brigade where she volunteers as a firefighter.

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