Thursday, September 6, 2007


Good communication can make the worst of events just a little easier to bear. If anyone doubts that, look at disasters that have occurred and see which ones have been managed the best – the ones where people knew what was going on. They may not have been happy about things, but if they felt as if they were being given information, if they knew what was going on, things were going to work out. Good communication doesn’t mean telling everyone everything, it means making sure that people hear what they need to hear when they need to hear it.

In the healthcare profession, this can be overlooked very easily. When you’re struggling with saving a life, there can be a tendency for some people to ignore the more human aspect of communication. While it’s understandable sometimes, it’s not most of the time. It doesn’t take that much out of your time to stop and say a few words to someone who is hoping to hear some news – be it good or bad. Medical schools, as well as schools for other healthcare professionals, are trying to address the communication issue because of its importance. One of today’s news items is about a study that reviewed how looking at a doctor’s ability to communicate early in his or her career will tell you ahead of time how their patients will react. But, is the difficulty with communications part and parcel of the role of the healthcare professional or is it from the person him or herself who took that personality type into the profession they chose?

What I mean is, do certain areas of healthcare attract people with poor communication skills? There’s the stereotype of the surgeon who speaks only when necessary, for example. Is this true? I’ve met some surgeons who speak as if they have to pay big money for every word that comes out of their mouth and I’ve met surgeons who talk non-stop. But, to tell you the truth, in my own experience, anecdotally and all that, most surgeons who I have worked with were not as talkative as some doctors in other specialties.

I’m not just talking about doctors when we talk about healthcare, though. How many of us have had an x-ray taken by a technician who barely acknowledged us other than to move our body parts for optimal images? I’ve had wonderful technicians and technologists who explained everything, who chatted, or just smiled and acknowledged my presence – that in itself goes a very long way. And I’ve had some who made me feel as if I was bothering them. If you’re in a stressful situation, which usually you are if you are undergoing tests, feeling like you’re bothering the staff is not a pleasant feeling.

I can’t forget to include nurses either. As a nurse, I tried hard to make sure I spoke *with* the patients as well as to them. Sometimes you need help with patient care, either with another nurse or an aide. I tried hard not to fall into the trap of having a conversation with the other person at the expense of the patient. Unfortunately, that does happen all to often though. In the midst of turning and positioning a patients, you hear them talking about a movie or what they are going to do later on. I can’t say I’ve never done that, but I did try not to.

I remember a cleaning lady who worked on a medical ward when I was a new nurse. The patients loved her because she would always stop her cleaning for a moment to talk to them. She’d ask how they were doing, follow up on a previous conversation, or just take a moment to admire their flowers, photos, or whatever they had. The patients loved her because she took the time to talk to them and with them. It never took more than a couple of minutes, but that few moments she spent with them left a big impression.

What I have learned over the years is that good communication skills can only improve health care all around. If people take the time to really listen and then speak in such a way that others understand, so much time can be saved and – the added benefit – patients feel validated, understood, and important. This affects the whole relationship and how the patients see themselves and their illnesses.

News for Today:
Doctors' communication skills provide forecast of patients' complaints
Study: Many ADHD Kids Aren't Diagnosed, Poorer Children Receive Less Treatment, Study Shows
Women confused about ovarian cancer, poll shows
13 percent of women stop taking breast cancer drug because of side effects, U-M study finds
Mold linked to asthma
Dangerous technology -- Mobiles should be kept away from hospital beds

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