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Strategies for Effective Communication in Health Care

September 29, 2021

In healthcare settings, communication may end up feeling like playing telephone, with pieces of information getting lost in the exchange between people and providers. However, unlike a game of telephone, poor communication carries significant stakes for patients, often resulting in lower quality of care. Here are examples:

  • Patients should feel safe enough to communicate honestly and openly with their care providers to receive effective treatments.
  • Providers should convey treatment plans and health education clearly, accessibly, and empathetically to ensure patients receive optimal care.
  • Administrators and providers should share information ethically and responsibly to protect patient confidentiality.
  • Healthcare organizations should apply culturally responsive measures to bridge communication gaps between stakeholders.

Effective communication in health care can make a life-or-death difference. Health administrators and other healthcare professionals should know the different types of communication, the barriers to effective communication, and evidence-based strategies for improvement. To help develop these skills and become a better healthcare leader, consider an advanced education in healthcare administration.

Barriers to Communication in Health Care

Communication is foundational to all layers of the healthcare system but can be problematic. Fortunately, professionals in this field can take steps to overcome many common barriers to effective communication.

Patient Distrust and Discomfort

Patients may not feel comfortable disclosing sensitive information, such as substance misuse or sexual dysfunction, to their care providers.

Patients withhold medical information for many reasons:

  • They feel intimidated by their providers.
  • They believe their providers will not listen to them.
  • They feel disrespected by the request to disclose.
  • They question medical advice in general.
  • They struggle with physical or psychological trauma.

Common Language Barriers

Patients may have difficulty communicating needs or symptoms when their providers do not speak their languages or their healthcare organizations do not supply interpreters.

Healthcare organizations that do not prioritize culturally competent care (including the use of interpreters to bridge communication gaps) fall short of delivering adequate support to their communities.

Providers Stretched Too Thin

Skillful communication enables healthcare providers to establish rapport with their patients, solicit crucial health information, and work effectively with all members of a care team and the public. However, a packed clinical workday often requires providers to rush from appointment to appointment — resulting in conditions in which communication can easily suffer.

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who come across as cold or aloof can damage the patient-provider relationship. Providers who signal disinterest or distraction when talking with patients may lose the goodwill and trust of the very people they seek to help.

Fortunately, evidence-based strategies for communication in health care can keep communication streamlined. Even a few extra minutes spent communicating with a patient can result in more efficient healthcare delivery for all.

Mismanaged Healthcare Files

With the growing amount of healthcare data, care teams have expanded in number and reach. Dozens of doctors, nurses, administrators, and other medical professionals at a hospital may all need to read a single patient file — opening the door to potential miscommunications that can affect treatment.

Providers and administrators need to work hard to ensure that healthcare information remains confidential and accessible only to the necessary parties of a care team. Controlling how many individuals can access confidential patient information helps healthcare teams communicate accurately and clearly and limits misunderstandings or communication breakdowns.

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Why Is Communication Important in Health Care?

Healthcare leaders understand that effective communication in organizations starts with recognizing the importance of listening to one another. Often, those in healthcare administration careers can help improve institutional communication by helping shape policy and promoting effective communication behaviors.

Collectively, medical professionals have a wealth of knowledge and expertise. That wellspring goes untapped when providers rush from one appointment to the next without allowing themselves time to listen and communicate effectively with patients, when patients feel unsafe, when care teams store medical information improperly, or when health organizations fail to employ interpreters for cross-cultural communications.

Clear, honest communication between patient and provider paves the way for accurate diagnoses and treatment decisions. Similarly, clear, confidential communication between members of a care team, which often includes patients and multiple providers, results in swiftly and ethically delivered care without breaching confidentiality.

Providers can help patients feel heard, ease their fears, and encourage them to disclose relevant information. For example, a patient who feels embarrassed about a pubic rash will likely feel more safe mentioning this to a provider who they know will treat them with compassion and a professional demeanor.

In addition, every person deserves to understand the medical care they receive. That means that healthcare organizations may need to train and hire interpreters so that patients can give their informed consent to treatment.

Communication Strategies in Health Care

Overcoming communication obstacles does not have to be difficult. Simple changes in behavior can help foster a better relationship between patient and provider, as well as help increase the quality of care. Consider the recommended strategies for communication in health care and how they can help overcome barriers.

Sit Down and Be Humble

Studies show that when a patient and their provider are seated during office visits and hospital check-ins, the two parties can build trust more easily. When a provider sits down to talk with a patient, the patient will more likely perceive the visit to be longer and more intimate; this can help quell anxiety regarding discussions about symptoms and possible treatments for diagnoses.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Patients often feel uncomfortable voicing their concerns, even after a few minutes of empathetic conversation. Doctors and other care providers should ask whether patients have more to say. For example, asking patients some variation of “Is there something else you’d like to talk about today?” can help create space for patients to reflect and voice concerns they might not have mentioned otherwise.

The BATHE technique guides providers to ask patients questions that solicit more information and develop rapport.

  • Background: Ask a patient about their present situation: “What is going on in your life?”
  • Affect: Ask a patient how they are emotionally relating to their health concern: “How is it affecting you?”
  • Trouble: Ask a patient about what they are worried about or what they foresee as obstacles: “What troubles you most about the situation?”
  • Handling: Ask a patient about how they are dealing with their situation: “How have you been handling this so far?”
  • Empathy: Show patients you are listening; reflect what you hear them saying about their feelings back to them: “That sounds … (frustrating, confusing, etc.).”

Communication in health care gets easier when we all ask questions and prepare to listen.

Speak in Plain Language

Providers should avoid medical jargon and instead rely on plain language to communicate with patients. When jargon is appropriate, providers should always define the medical language clearly (e.g., “This stethoscope is a device for measuring heartbeat”).

Speaking in plain language communicates to patients that providers care about having a two-way conversation rather than just delivering a monologue.

Keep Communications Confidential

An entire hospital wing may be able to access a patient’s file, but that does not mean they should. Limit access to individual case files to only the members of the patient’s care team. Refrain from casual discussion of patient issues with anyone outside the team.

Hire Interpreters and Culturally Competent Staff at Every Level

Healthcare settings should be safe spaces for people who need treatment — not environments that tolerate racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, or other forms of discrimination.

Healthcare organizations should hire interpreters as needed to ensure that all patients can communicate effectively. For every patient, hearing and being heard by healthcare providers is a basic right that is essential to culturally competent and effective treatment. Interpreters help ensure healthcare organizations recognize and fulfill this right.

Key Communication Skills in Health Care

Interpersonal communication skills in health care can develop organically throughout life by interacting with diverse groups of people in both professional and personal capacities. They can also be developed through study and practice as part of a Master of Health Administration (MHA) program’s curriculum. Below are some of these skills.

Active Listening

Active listening is the practice of listening to understand. It requires paying attention to the speaker; noticing nonverbal cues; and engaging with them as they speak without interrupting by nodding in agreement, maintaining eye contact, and using brief encouraging statements. In addition to helping patients feel listened to, it can be key to helping healthcare staff feel like their leaders understand their experiences.

Oral Communication Skills

Effective oral communication often requires adjusting one’s tone to suit the person being spoken to, taking into consideration their age or demographic background. For example, some language might be interpreted as talking down to someone due to their gender or racial background. Good communication can help increase a patient’s trust in their healthcare providers.

Nonverbal Communication Skills

Nonverbal aspects of communication, such as nodding and smiling, also help convey how much someone is engaging while communicating. These behaviors can help patients feel more at ease and more trusting of a caregiver’s input, making them more accepting of the input. 

Written Communication

Improving writing skills benefits other healthcare professionals on a patient’s care team, as a clearly written medical history helps inform future care. Using legible writing and accurate notes can help facilitate smooth care by reducing wasted time repeating conversations or treatments.

Cultural Awareness

Healthcare teams often deal with populations from diverse backgrounds, and understanding how to tailor their communication to each individual is key to providing effective care. For example, patients who struggle with the primary language of the facility or caregiver would benefit from a translator or translation services.

Communicate Like a Leader in Healthcare Settings

With so much at stake, communication in health care is a serious priority. As such, health care needs leaders who recognize the importance of communication.

Tulane University’s Online MHA prepares you for a career in healthcare leadership. Be the change you want to see in health care, and learn more about how to improve health care from the inside, with better communication and better treatment.

Gain the Expertise to Become a Healthcare Leader

Pursue Your MHA Online at Tulane University
Find Out More

Recommended Readings:

Patient-Centered Care: Definition and Examples
An Organizational Chart in Health Care Explained
What Is Quality Improvement in Healthcare?


Creative Health Care Management, Importances of Communication in the Healthcare Industry
Healthy People 2030, Health Communication
JBI Evidence Implementation, “Communication, an Important Link Between Healthcare Providers: A Best Practice Implementation Project”
Rural Health Information Hub, Health Communication
The HIPAA Journal, “Communication Tools in Nursing”