Improving Communication in Healthcare

We have more tools to help us communicate than ever before, but is our communication in healthcare improving as a result? Between patients googling their symptoms, doctors spending more time documenting their care in electronic health records (EHRs), sales rep visits, patient portals, and masks, there are many variables to account for. Let’s explore where breakdowns are occurring and what we can do about it.


Importance of Good Communication in Healthcare

Patient safety is a primary driver of the importance of good communication practices. If a patient is not clear on their diagnosis, its impact, and the treatment plan, there is no way they can adhere to their doctor’s recommendations.

Family members and caregivers can’t provide adequate support if they receive misinformation from the patient and don’t have direct access to their healthcare provider. The consequences of this misunderstanding will vary by the diagnosis but could lead to death. This is a risky high-stakes game of telephone.


Impact of Googling Symptoms on Communication

A person wakes up one day and experiences an abnormal symptom. Next, they’re off to their phone or computer to google these symptoms. After all, why waste a doctor’s visit if nothing is serious? If it is critical, they will get a jump start on their doctor by finding out what it is and the most appropriate medical intervention for them.

Patients googling symptoms of headaches to improve communication in healthcare

Over 189 million results load in .79 seconds, starting each patient on their fall down the rabbit hole. Diagnoses range from being benign to more serious issues, like meningitis and even brain tumors. It is clear they are dying and must make an appointment NOW.

Google empowers patients to talk about their symptoms in greater detail. Instead of telling doctors their head hurts, they can use terminology such as “I have a sharp shooting pain starting at the middle back of my head and ending at the bottom of my neck.” This level of understanding is helpful for healthcare workers, but there are drawbacks as well.

doctor in white coat confused because patients are googling symptoms to improve their communication in healthcare


Patient Portals

Companies created Patient portals to improve the communication between doctors and patients by providing greater access to healthcare data. But do they?

If you have a general practitioner (GP), neurologist, podiatrist, and therapist, you likely have four different portals to improve your communication with your doctor’s office. That means four apps or websites, four different passwords, and four different user interfaces to navigate. This is besides any portals you manage for your children.

older patient wearing polo shirt and hat

If a millennial has a challenge navigating their medical journey through patient portals, what about baby boomers? This group is the second-largest living generation behind millennials. They are also the group most in need of medical care as they age.

68% of baby boomers have a smartphone, but the COVID vaccination process showed us the urgent need for people to support navigating confusing technology.

Doctor’s offices need to provide more resources for patients who need help with technology to feel empowered to navigate their healthcare journey.

It would be great to have all of your patient portals connected to have a fuller picture of your health. Doctors would benefit from this too. Relying on patients to share information from four different doctors with each other is not a great idea.

Patients forget 40-80% of medical information doctors tell them during an office visit, and nearly half of the information they remember is incorrect. If patient portals were easier to use, they could improve these statistics by providing engaging and helpful content.

Think about a parent whose child has ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. If they received monthly videos about tips to raise a child with ADHD, it would be appreciated. Also, it would make the patient feel connected to the doctor all year, not just during the annual visit.

There need to be more people in healthcare offices whose primary responsibility is to ensure patient-facing technology is easy to use, provide value, and engage the patient more frequently than once a year.


How to Improve Doctor Patient Communication

If patients do not understand what their doctors tell them, the likelihood of adhering to a treatment plan is low. Health literacy creates a challenge because doctors give patients the benefit of the doubt, and patients may be insecure about questioning the doctor when they don’t understand. Older adults are most likely to have low health literacy, and they are the same group who need it the most.

We should use medical jargon when communicating with other healthcare providers, not patients. Let’s say your friend took their toddler to an urgent care facility one evening. The doctor did a chest X-ray, diagnosed him with pneumonia, and ordered an ambulance to transport him to the nearest hospital. The parents are scared.

The doctor at the hospital repeated the chest X-ray. She shared the results with the parents and stated that the X-ray was unremarkable. Although both parents understood the meaning of that word used in everyday conversation, they had no frame of reference for it in a medical scenario. This created more questions from the parents that weren’t necessary.


Other Medical Jargon to Avoid

  • acute – a condition that comes on suddenly
  • agonal – term to signify a significant adverse change in a patient’s condition
  • atypical – something that isn’t completely normal
  • comorbid – two or more conditions that occur at the same time
  • iatrogenic – something that didn’t go as planned
  • idiopathic – a state that does not have a simple explanation of the cause
  • metabolic syndrome – risk factors that increase the likelihood of heart attack and stroke
  • negative – results of a test that show a tested condition is not present
  • sub-therapeutic – something at a low level
  • tachycardia – fast heart rate

The TV show “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” proved to most adults that they are not. Doctors need to use this data to inform better communication with their patients. Shoot for a second-grade level of communication, and you should be good.


Use the Teach-Back Method

The teach-back method, also called the “show-me” method, is a communication confirmation method used by healthcare providers to confirm whether patients (or caretakers) understand what they have explained. If a patient understands, they can “teach-back” the information accurately. Teach-back is a communication method intended to improve health literacy.

Doctors spend a lot of time documenting patient’s electronic health records during a patient visit. Insurance companies penalize them if the documentation is not thorough enough. Watching your doctor look into a computer screen creates a disconnect in communication. By doctors implementing the teach-back method, they establish a closer bond with their patients and improve understanding.

4 steps to improve success with patient understanding and teach-back


Improving communication in healthcare is vital. People with good health literacy struggle to understand at times. When a person is not fluent with technology or speaks English as a second language, these challenges increase—wearing masks during visits further limits our ability to understand because we can’t see as many facial expressions.

We have more technology available to help us, but many of the resources we need to support that technology are missing. We should consider technology as one ingredient in a recipe. For the recipe to be a success, we need other ingredients combined in the right proportion.


Recipe for Technology to be an Asset

  • 1 cup of software
  • 3 cups of training on how to use the software
  • ½ cup of customization to enhance the user experience
  • 2 cups of consistent use
  • 4 cups of resources to support people using the software
  • 1 ½ cups of technology experts to lead the strategy on its use


It’s time to cook and improve our communication in healthcare!


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