Active Listening: The Key to Patient Communication

Eric Welke Best Practices, Customer Experience, Dental, Guides, How to & Tutorials, Medical, Reputation Management Leave a Comment

There is little doubt of the importance of patient experience and satisfaction in the medical profession these days. There continues to be a fundamental shift from the traditional approach to medicine centered around doctor directed care to the emphasis on patient satisfaction and experience. (I have written about the difference between patient experience and satisfaction here.)

With this change in emphasis comes a number of other changes. One of these is the increased transparency of patient reviews on social media and search engines. Whether the shift to patient experience is a boon or bust, it is the reality and must be addressed.

Part of addressing the changing emphasis is the preeminence of your communication skills as a healthcare provider.  Communication has always been at the center of good healthcare, but it is doubly important now.

Downfalls of Bad Communication Skills

Not only is communication key to a patient centered approach to medicine, but the lack of it can have serious consequences. In fact, the vast majority of malpractice risk is centered around poor communication. Research shows that:

  • 71% of malpracitve cases were brought as a result of patient relationship problems;
  • The most litigious patients had the perception that their provider was uncaring; and
  • 25% of patients with malpractice suits reported poor delivery of medical information.

Malpractice, and the mishaps or accidents around it, is perhaps the worst-case scenario to poor communication. But it isn’t the only downside. Poor patient satisfaction and experience is the other.

With the ever-increasing transparency of everyday life brought to us by social media, the impact of poor communication skills can be instantaneous. Patients can rant and rave about a provider the second they walk out the door through a Google review. This review, once posted, is then seen by your current and prospective patients.

You can tell when someone has had a bad patient experience centered around poor communication just from reading the review.  Not only will a patient mention that they didn’t feel like they were being listened to, but the very fact of the negative review shows that the patient just needed someone to vent to.  And, unfortunately for your practice, that venting is now available for everyone to read.

Benefits of Good Communication Skills

With the downsides sufficiently covered, the upsides are pretty straightforward. With good communication and active listening skills you will not only be able to make a better diagnosis of the patient’s issues, but you will also build a stronger relationship with your patients.

Stronger relationships mean you will increase positive patient experiences and satisfaction. This leads your patients to be more likely to refer your practice to their friends and family.

The upsides are as big as the downsides. By practicing good communication skills, you will have better patient outcomes and your patients will become promoters for your practice. That should be the goal for each patient interaction at every level of contact your practice has with a patient.

When it comes to good communication in the medical field, and any professional service for that matter, active listening is key.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is the highest and most effective form of listening. It is more than hearing, which is just sound hitting your ears and your brain registering noise.  Hearing requires no feedback or intentionality to understand what the speaker is actually saying.

There are, according to Phil Hunsaker and Tony Alessandra in The New Art of Managing People, four types of listeners. They are:

  • Non-listener;
  • Marginal listener;
  • Evaluative listener; and
  • Active listener.

As a medical provider, you should strive to be an active listener in each and every one of your interactions with patients.  Active listening is the practice of seeking to understand the underlying meaning of what the speaker, your patient, is attempting to communicate.  Some patients, I’m sure you are aware, are better at communicating at others.  But that shouldn’t reduce your willingness to engage in active listening.

How to be an Active Listener

In order to be an effective active listener, you need to pay attention to, and beware of your own, body movements and posture as well as your patient’s.  Most of communication is nonverbal.

Most people have heard of the 55/38/7 percentage.  It has been around since the 1960’s and still has support in research today.  These percentages relate to the amount of communication that is related through different channels.  It means that:

  • 55% of communication is body language;
  • 38% of communication is in the tone of voice; and
  • 7% of communication is in the actual words spoken.

Being an active listener means you are paying attention to each of the three aspects of communication while telegraphing your own interest in what the patient is saying.  This generally means eye contact and developing facial expressions showing your interest and providing some, but not a lot, of verbal encouragement showing that you are, in fact, listening and understanding the speaker.

Furthermore, Forbes contributor Dianne Schilling gives 10 steps to be an active listener.  These are:

  1. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact;
  2. Be attentive, but relaxed;
  3. Keep an open mind;
  4. Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying;
  5. Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your solutions;
  6. Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions;
  7. Ask questions only to ensure understanding;
  8. Try to feel what the speaker is feeling;
  9. Give the speaker regular feedback; and
  10. Pay attention to what isn’t said – to nonverbal cues.

What speakers are looking for, and this applies heavily in a medical context, is empathy.  If you approach each interaction with the intention of being an active listener and also bring a healthy dose of empathy, you will certainly increase your communication skills.

By developing active listening skills, you can avoid the most common reasons given for a malpractice suit, avoid negative patient satisfaction, increase positive patient experience, and help turn your patients into promoters for your practice.

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