10 tips for better communication with your patient
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Imagine meeting your newest patient who has come to you dissatisfied with their treatment at another practice. Undoubtedly, you’ll be no stranger to complaints like “the therapist gave me a different treatment than the one we had agreed on” or “I had to repeat everything, again and again, each session.” Although you’re a knowledgeable and skilled physiotherapist, the physios in your practice might not be the best communicators.
‘Skills for communicating with patients’ (1) emphasises that communication forms the bridge between theory and practice and expresses that how we communicate is just as important as what we’re saying. Communication is the key to building a good relationship with your patient and maximising a treatment’s effectiveness. In this blog, we’ll share 10 tips on how to improve your communication with your patients. Whether you are a seasoned therapist or just starting, these tips will help you communicate better with your patients.
Ten tips for better communication with your patient
- Create an excellent foundation
- Listen to your patients
- Use communication techniques
- Don’t forget: non-verbal communication is also communication
- Involve your patient in the process
- Take notes without disrupting the conversation
- Be respectful
- Take your patient’s mental and physical capabilities into account
- Dose information and stimulate memory
- Employ e-health tools and services
Each tip will be discussed in more detail below.
Tip 1 Create an excellent foundation
Your first interaction can make or break an excellent therapist-patient relationship. A relationship that is essential to the treatment’s effectiveness. It takes little effort to start a conversation properly, so make sure to take your time:
- Greet your patient and introduce yourself
- Be friendly and interested
- Prepare beforehand and interact with your patient on a personal level.
Tip 2 Listen to your patients
Listening is one of your most essential qualities. Patients who feel heard will speak more freely about their symptoms. Conversely, someone who does not feel heard, will crawl back into their shell. Undoubtedly, you’ll have experienced a similar situation in which you’re left questioning why you should provide any details if your doctor or therapist is unwilling to listen anyway.
The problem, however, is that sometimes we listen but must clearly show it to our patients. Use the following tips to avoid losing patients:
- Ask an introductory question and give your patient enough space and time to answer
- Paraphrase and summarise during the conversation (and always ask your patient if your interpretation and summary are correct)
Tip 3 Use communication techniques
Communication techniques are comprehensive, but in this particular case, we like to refer to the methods and actions you can use to structure your conversation. Here are a few examples of such interview techniques:
- Do not ask suggestive questions
- Alternate between open-ended and closed questions
- Provide both verbal (through silences, repetition or paraphrasing) and non-verbal support
- Dig deeper
- Avoid jargon (if and when you do use it, don’t forget to explain it thoroughly)
- Maintain a logical structure
- Make use of transitional comments (don't just move on to the next topic, but clearly state why you are switching to it)
- Keep the conversation on track and don't let it stray
Tip 4 Don’t forget: non-verbal communication is also communication
Communication is so much more than what you’re saying. For example, making eye contact with your patient will make them feel they are being listened to. Simultaneously, eye contact indicates confidence, which helps build the patient's trust. Below are some other ways you can communicate in a non-verbal manner with your patient to clear things up:
- Body posture (e.g. are you sitting slumped with your arms crossed or sitting nicely upright with an open posture?)
- Position relative to each other (e.g. facing each other can appear coercive and intimidating while sitting at a 90° angle can come across as friendly and inviting)
- Movements and/or gestures
- Facial expressions
- Voice use (e.g. are you speaking softly and stammering or using your voice at an average volume without stammering?)
With non-verbal communication, you can display your self-confidence, insecurity, competence, or incompetence. In addition, make sure your non-verbal behaviour matches what you are saying or hearing. Of course, it goes without saying that bringing sad news ought to be done without a polite smile. And then, of course, there is your patient's non-verbal communication: does what they say correspond to their attitude? If it doesn’t, mention it if you think it’s necessary.
Tip 5 Involve your patient in the process
Communicating well is about more than simply conveying information. Sharing information is a collaborative process between therapist and patient. So, involve your patient in the process:
- Ask what your patient’s expectations are
- Clearly state why you ask or do things
- Speak your thoughts. Name your ideas, thought processes and even possible dilemmas you’re facing.
- Make suggestions. Don’t decide for your patient, but, if possible, give them a choice.
- Make agreements (and stick to them)
Tip 6 Take notes without disrupting the conversation
How often have you sat in front of a care provider who paid more attention to their screen than you? And how much did that annoy you? As a care provider, you know that taking notes is essential. We are all human and remembering everything about each patient is impossible. However, asking the same questions every session because you need to recall previous answers comes across as highly inept. So take notes, but try to do so without disrupting your conversation or the interaction with your patient. Here are a few tips:
- Only type/write down keywords and work out your notes as much as possible after each consultation.
- Make note-taking discussable. Say that, unfortunately, you lack the talent to remember everything and that you will therefore need to look at your screen more often. Most patients will understand and will feel respected if you give them an explanation.
Tip 7 Be respectful
Good communication hinges on the respect you show to your patient. Without the appropriate respect, it won’t matter how many communication techniques you employ; an excellent patient-therapist relationship will not be in the cards. So keep the following in mind:
- Do not judge but acknowledge and accept the patient's views and feelings
- Approach embarrassing or hard topics and/or pain with the utmost respect and sensitivity
- Be attentive to and consider the patient's way of life, religious beliefs, cultural background, and mental and physical capabilities.
Tip 8 Take your patient's mental and physical capabilities into account
Communicating well is a tailor-made process. The average person is probably not an expert in physiotherapy. Neither do all patients possess the same level of thinking or intelligence. Therefore, adapt what you’re communicating and how you’re communicating according to each patient’s mental and physical capabilities:
- Check what the patient already knows.
- Provide understandable and appropriate information.
- Ask the patient if they require more information about certain aspects or elements.
Tip 9 Dose information and stimulate memory
We can communicate well, but if none of that sticks with your patient, it wastes time and effort. Especially since having disease insight is crucial to any treatment. How else can you encourage your patients to take responsibility for their actions? So dose your information well and stimulate your patients' memory:
- Organise the information you give logically and divide it into small portions.
- Regularly ask if everything is understood or ask your patient to repeat it in their own words.
- Use visual support
Tip 10 Employ e-health tools or services
Undeniably, we must recognise the internet's essential role in modern communication. So get with the times:
- Make use of online appointment systems
- Forward homework exercises via healthcare apps
- Offer online consultations– when possible
Supportive patient information leaflets
Applying the 10 tips discussed in this blog in practice as a physiotherapist can improve your communication with your patients. Such an approach can lead to better outcomes and higher patient satisfaction. Gymna offers patients leaflets for shockwave and TECAR therapy to help therapists update their patients with the correct information. After all, a well-informed patient is a satisfied patient. Contact us if you want to know more about effective and patient-centred therapy.
(1) Silverman, J., Kurtz, S., & Draper, J. (2013). Skills for Communicating with Patients (3rd ed.). CRC Press.