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How Compassionate Communication Improves Patient Care

April 08, 2019

Whether a patient is sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting in an exam room or waking up after surgery, they often feel a mix of emotions, including uncertainty, fear and vulnerability. They want answers. They want the truth. But even as doctors share information with them, they want more than just the facts -- they want it conveyed in a caring manner.

Compassionate communication is the ability to exchange your thoughts and ideas with someone, while being empathetic to their suffering and anxiety. It involves active listening and understanding verbal and nonverbal communication cues. While compassionate communication has always had a place in the world of medicine, increasing emphasis on patient-centered care has brought this need to the forefront.

Need for More Demonstrated Compassion

While no one is doubting that doctors and other healthcare professionals are compassionate, they may not demonstrate it in ways that patients most need. Picture, for example, a doctor talking with a new patient in an examination room. As the patient describes the symptoms, the doctor interrupts to ask questions to get more specific information. The doctor may be striving for efficiency, yet the patient feels like they aren’t being heard.Female doctor speaking with male patient

This is a common occurrence. A study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that doctors spend an average of 11 seconds listening to a patient before interrupting them. While doctors undoubtedly need to ask questions, it is also important to practice active listening, which includes asking open-ended questions, listening carefully to the answers and observing their non-verbal behavior.

Nonverbal communication makes up more than 70 percent of communication, so healthcare professionals can get a wealth of information by observing their patients in addition to listening to them. But multitasking – such as reading a chart or taking notes while a patient is speaking – makes it harder to get the benefits of this nonverbal communication.

Can missed communication really hurt the doctor or patient? Definitely. More than 70 percent of malpractice lawsuits are due to communication errors. Effective and compassionate communication with patients is essential for healthcare professionals to form relationships with patients and their families.

When healthcare professionals learn effective communication techniques, they can form relationships with their patients in a very short period of time. And when patients feel that they have a relationship with their healthcare provider and that their opinions are respected, they are more likely to comply with their treatments, have better outcomes and report a more positive overall patient experience.

Developing Compassionate Communication

Like other skills, some people are inherently able to communicate with compassion, but for others, it is a skill that can be learned.

For the past four years, Orlando Health and BBN® have teamed up to train residents and senior physicians in five different specialties on how to effectively communicate with compassion. Through this program, each healthcare professional participates in videotaped improvisational role playing with professional actors who portray patients and families receiving tragic news.

In addition, more than 500 physicians, nurses and team members of Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies have completed the “It’s All in the Delivery®” training program, with more healthcare professionals participating in the program each day. This 2- to 3-hour workshop is designed to improve the overall patient experience through extensive training in compassionate communication. Orlando Health is the only hospital system in Florida committed to this training.

When healthcare professionals communicate good, bad or neutral news, listening and talking with patients empathetically and compassionately are essential. A healthcare environment where the staff communicates compassionately helps patients form longstanding relationships and improves their experience – whether they are sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting in an exam room or waking up after surgery.

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