peters liu communication header
Marcie Hopkins, University of Utah Health
How to Improve Your Patient Communication Skills
Communication is a skill; it takes practice. Clinicians Caryn Peters and Patricia Liu share their method for making meaningful connections with patients and teams.

lthough our specialties reflect our differences, many of us agree that we’re drawn to health care because we want to help people. But after we leave training and enter our practice, the atmosphere changes. Our schedules pile up. We’re forced to jump from one patient to the next. Before we know it, the clinician-patient connection begins to erode.

Often, it feels like we just don’t have enough time. It’s hard—if not impossible—to break through personal barriers and establish trust and confidence with a patient when you’re counting down the seconds until your next appointment.

Miscommunication can also lead to a fractured clinician-patient relationship. If both parties aren’t on the same page when it comes to basic knowledge, beliefs, or differences in understanding, a hurried visit can cause lasting damage. 

Good communication doesn’t have to depend entirely on the quantity of time we spend with patients. We can foster healthy interactions with these three ways to carve out time to improve the quality of our relationships.

#1: Be okay with silence

Our patients come to us looking for answers. We’re often so eager, or so pressed for time, to address their concerns that we forget to listen. But sometimes jumping right in rushes the conversation and makes patients feel unheard and overwhelmed. 

Silence is a skill we frequently overlook. Listening is a powerful tool: It slows the pace of conversations and gives patients the impression that we have all the time in the world. It allows both parties a chance to reflect and cool off. Silence also gives patients time to process and communicate their emotions. 

Even though silence can be uncomfortable, it forces us to take a moment and focus on what our patients really need. Instead of trying to get our point across, we can develop a deeper understanding of our patients’ experiences and concerns.

#2: Be intentional 

One of the most important elements of effective communication is self-awareness. Sometimes, when we’re in a hurry, we focus on keeping the momentum of our day rolling. We unintentionally push patients to keep up with us, instead of giving them the space to complete their thoughts.

If our approach is rushed, we can miss subtle indicators of how patients are feeling or processing information. Taking a moment to set our intentions for upcoming conversations can help us tune into their needs. Before you walk through that door, try closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and pausing for a second to center yourself. This little habit helps manage your own anxiety so you can focus on the patient.

#3: Practice communication like you would a procedure

Communication skills should be treated like a procedure. We can hone our skills by practicing them and taking refresher courses regularly. 

Classes or formal training, like UACT, may seem awkward or tedious, but they offer a safe space to develop conversation strategies. Activities like role playing help you work through tough or uncomfortable situations. Feedback from peers and instructors often reveal new ways to connect with patients on a deeper level. 

In real life, getting stuck in a conversation can be overwhelming. During these in-class activities, you’re encouraged to pause, take a breath, and reevaluate the scenario. If you don’t know what to say, you’ve got people there to help you work through those issues.

It's worth the work

Learning the ins and outs of good communication can be uncomfortable and time-consuming. But dedicating time and energy to improving your skills outside of the office won’t just benefit your patients. These three strategies will help you approach future conversations with self-awareness, confidence and patience.

*Originally posted Apr. 2, 2021


Caryn Peters

Hospitalist PA-C, General internal Medicine, University of Utah Health

Patricia Liu

Hospitalist, Assistant Professor, General internal Medicine, University of Utah Health

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