Healthcare News & Insights

How better communication can improve patient outcomes and lower readmission rates

Aside from top-quality providers and the latest technology, what do the most successful hospitals have that others don’t? The answer: clear and effective communication across all levels and area of care. In this guest post, Burl Stamp, founder and president of a consulting firm, offers three strategies to help organizations change the way frontline staff think about communication.

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Effective communication is central to the patient experience, as evidenced by the focus of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) HCAHPS survey. Approximately three-quarters of the survey’s questions relate to how caregivers communicate with patients and families. Effective communication is important for both short- and long-term episodes of care, but it’s especially critical at key transition points in care, most notably discharge.

Did the patient understand the medication schedule and instructions? Were both the patient and caregiver comfortable and confident with the post-discharge plan? Did the patient fully understand what signs and symptoms would indicate problems? If the answers to these questions are mostly positive, then the likelihood of their recovery being successful goes up and their chances of being unnecessarily readmitted go down.

Collaborative communication across the care team is just as vital as direct communication with patients. In leading patient experience surveys by companies such as NRC Health, PRC and Press Ganey, the question “How well did hospital staff work together as a team?” is highly correlated with overall patient satisfaction. That correlation makes perfect sense: When patients receive clear, consistent information from every caregiver, they’re more confident about what to do after discharge.

Clear, open communication builds trust, reduces confusion and increases patients’ confidence, which contributes directly to better outcomes and reduced readmission rates. These positive outcomes stem largely from two simple but powerful strategies: listening carefully to patients and explaining things in a way they understand.

When communication breaks down

Real-life conversations often break down because of misunderstandings, but in health care, miscommunication is especially dangerous. In a 2016 analysis by Johns Hopkins University, researchers estimated that more than 250,000 people in the U.S. die every year from medical errors (almost as many as succumb to heart disease or cancer).

Healthcare experts agree that reducing this alarming number means improving the culture of safety. In 2017, the American College of Healthcare Executives and the National Patient Safety Foundation released the report “Leading a Culture of Safety: A Blueprint for Success.”

The report lays a foundation of knowledge and resources to help organizations emphasize safety for caregivers and patients. Four of the report’s six major imperatives are rooted in effective organizational or interpersonal communication: establishing a compelling vision for safety; building trust, respect and inclusion; educating board members in patient and workforce safety issues; and setting and modeling behaviors such as transparency, active communication and civility.

While these strategies may seem straightforward, effective communication in a hospital or other care setting is more challenging than in virtually any other industry. This complexity traces to a number of industry-specific issues, including a high number of unique transactions during and across care episodes; traditionally siloed work processes related to diagnosis and treatment; and longstanding hierarchical barriers among care teams.

Given its central role in delivering safe, holistic, compassionate care, effective communication must be a top priority throughout the industry. In fact, it must be as nonnegotiable as superior technical and clinical skills. Following are three overarching strategies to help organizations change the way frontline staff think about communication:

1. Create a culture of communication first

To improve interactions, staff members have to understand what effective communication looks and feels like at all levels of the organization. Leaders must demonstrate best practices and reinforce communication as a priority every time they interact with staff and patients, through strategies such as organization-wide town hall meetings, attendance at individual departmental meetings and regular rounds at the frontline.

2. Make it easier to communicate internally.

If an organization’s culture is one that encourages open, transparent communication, then providers will feel free to question and investigate discrepancies and gaps in information. While the latest comprehensive electronic health records facilitate information exchange, they don’t replace effective interpersonal communication, either among the care team or with patients and families.

If an organization’s culture encourages open, transparent communication, then providers will feel free to question and investigate discrepancies and gaps in information. Implementing the right internal communications and IT infrastructure can help prevent such mistakes. For example, AI software can eliminate redundancies that wear down healthcare staff and can help physicians and specialists collaborate more fluently when making clinical decisions. Of course, the latest comprehensive electronic health records facilitate information exchange, but they don’t replace effective interpersonal communication, either among care team members or with patients and families.

3. Fully embrace a customer-centric mindset.

With focused training and mentoring from managers, healthcare professionals can develop the communication skills that improve interactions with one another and with patients. An investment in improved communication practices and competencies is an essential part of improving not only patient experience, but also patient outcomes.

Ample research establishes that effective communication is essential to attaining better health outcomes. To be sure, changing both the culture of communication and the specific practices and tools used on the ground entails a significant organization-wide commitment, but the results will be well worth the effort.

Burl Stamp is the founder and president of Stamp & Chase, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve customer experience, build brand loyalty, promote a culture of safety, and increase employee engagement.

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