As the new health care laws begin to take effect and providers renew their focus on quality outcomes, many are looking at communication as a cornerstone of their improvement efforts. This is in line with the findings of multiple organizations, including the Institute of Medicine, which released a paper in 2011 noting that communication between patients and providers is one of the keys to quality outcomes.

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Better communication not only reduces the likelihood of a medical error, it also builds trust in providers, improves compliance with treatment protocols and improves patient satisfaction with the treatment that they receive.

While many masters in nursing online programs and other educational initiatives include communication training as part of the curriculum, there are some things that providers can begin doing right away to improve their communication with patients.

Remain Culturally Sensitive
While few health care professionals allow a patient’s race, ethnicity, religion or culture influence the level of care they provide, as that would be a direct violation of local laws and professional ethics, it’s not unusual for cultural barriers to impede effective communication between patients. Language is one of the most common barriers to communication; if you sense that your patient does not understand what you’re saying, recommend or request an interpreter.

But beyond language, there could be cultural considerations that may impede effective communication. Different cultures may use different communication cues, or may be more or less willing to ask questions or submit to particular treatments. To provide the possible best care for your patients, be culturally sensitive and ask questions when necessary. If you live in an area with a large minority population, learn about their culture, communication style and expectations so you are prepared to provide the best possible care.

Use Communication Tools
Visiting the doctor can be stressful for some people, especially when they are ill. It can be difficult for patients to understand or retain all of the information you’re providing; they may be distracted by pain or worry, or maybe they simply do not comprehend what you’re saying. When working with patients, use multiple forms of communication. As you explain their diagnosis, use models or diagrams to help them visualize what it happening. Provide instructions both verbally and in written form, so the patient can reference the hand out after leaving the hospital.

Speak in Common Language
Like many specialized fields, health care is full of jargon and complicated — many of which are used when a simpler term will do, thus confusing or alarming patients. When talking with patients, make a point to use the common terms for ailments or treatments; if you must use the technical term, define it for the patient, such as “It looks like you have hypertension, also known as high blood pressure”.

Be Polite and Pleasant — While Still Keeping the Conversation on Track
According to an ABC News survey, one of the top complaints that patients have about doctors is feeling rushed during appointments. Not only do patients have to often wait a long time to be seen, when they finally make it to the examination table, they feel like the doctor is only half listening, trying to rush them out the door so they can move on to the next patient.

While there may not be much you can do about the fact that appointment times are packed together tighter than sardines and schedule shifts are inevitable, you can help patients feel better about your interaction. When you enter the room, make eye contact and pleasantly greet the patient. Ask questions to get to the reason for the visit and bring the conversation back to that purpose when things get off track, by asking questions like “How did that make you feel?” or “Did that cause more problems with (ailment?)” You communicate your trustworthiness, empathy and capability by the way you interact with your patients. Make a point of being polite and pleasant, no matter how rushed you are.

Listen
Finally, the best way to improve patient communication involves not saying a word. Listen to your patient — and pay attention! Avoid interrupting. One study showed that most patients speak for less than 30 seconds before a provider interrupts them. If you let the patient talk, you’ll get the information you need and can tailor your questions from there.

As health care gets more complicated, one of the best ways to continue to provide excellent care is to focus on communication. Knowing what to say and how — and when to stay quiet — is quite possibly the best medicine for improving patient care.