We tend to think of communication as a physician-patient challenge. While that is an area of extreme importance, we also have to acknowledge the lack of healthy communication and teamwork that exists between some providers and hospital staff.

Effective communication is critical to productivity in any industry, but in healthcare, where one patient could be cared for by many different people, efficient, clear communication is crucial. Miscues can lead to severe consequences for patients and hospitals alike.

For one, the inability to communicate puts patient experience at risk, which can damage a hospital's reputation and HCAHPS score.

Research indicates that poor communication adversely influences the patient's overall perception of the hospital's clinical effectiveness and their willingness to return — both key levers in patient satisfaction and loyalty. 

Even worse, the lack of communication has led to malpractice suits and deaths. A CRICO Strategies study found that 1,744 patient deaths and $1.7 billion in malpractice costs could have been avoided had staff communicated better.

U.S. News cited a 2016 study in The BMJ, which found that medical mistakes are responsible for more than 250,000 deaths in the United States each year. The study put much of the blame on miscommunication between members of the care team.

Even though bad communication habits aren't easy to break and understanding others doesn’t just happen, given the critical need to provide the best patient care possible, what can doctors, nurses, and other clinical staff do to improve communication and teamwork?

These ten guidelines can help.

1. Understand that Communication Problems Exist 

The first step to solving a communications problem is to admit that it exists.

It's easy to think that just because you say something, you've communicated a message clearly. After all, you understand the instructions, so it stands to reason that the person receiving them also understands what you meant. That is not always the case.

Effective communication involves two steps: encoding and decoding.

The sender must encode and transmit the message, and the receiver must decode what was said. If the receiver decodes the message incorrectly, communication has broken down.

One useful technique is to focus on delivering total communication: content (what you're saying), voice (how you say it), and physical aspects (facial expressions and body language). Often, nonverbal signals communicate more than words.

Also, make active listening a priority and allow for questions, to clarify context and meaning, without being judgmental or impatient toward the person asking. Doing so relieves stress, puts the person at ease, and opens the door to clear communication.

2. Create an OpenCommunication Culture

Change often comes from the top. The burden of creating a culture of open communication must be borne by hospital leadership who model appropriate behavior, set expectations, and invest in support systems that foster change.  

Tips for keeping communication lines open in your hospital to improve satisfaction.

3. Make Use of Structured Communications Tools

Another way to avoid mishaps is to use structured communication tools, which remove the guesswork from physician-clinical staff communications.

One tool in current use, SBAR (an acronym for Situation, Background, Assessment, and Recommendation), provides a framework for communication between members of the health care team about a patient's condition.

The Targeted Solutions Tool™ (TST) is another tool worth investigating. The Joint Commission for Transforming Healthcare developed the TST to address the problem of miscues during hand-offs. (Ineffective hand-off communication is a critical patient safety problem contributing to an estimated 80 percent of serious medical errors, according to The Joint Commission.)

4. Host Interdisciplinary Communication Training Sessions

Interdisciplinary programs get people to listen to each other, understand each other’s roles, and create ongoing forums for interaction, both clinical and non-clinical. Topics should include team dynamics, communication skills, phone etiquette, assertiveness training, diversity training, conflict management, and stress management.

5. Set Aside Time for Social Gatherings

Formal training is necessary, but so are informal social gatherings, such as luncheons, group outings, or other functions. These allow people to get to know one another on a deeper level, which strengthens interpersonal bonds and builds trust. 

6. Work at Developing Relationships

Personal connections can enhance the work environment and prevent friction from arising as the result of on-the-job misunderstandings. But the effort has to be made by all parties; team building can't be a one-sided affair.

Healthy relationships only develop when every team member makes it a priority to view the others as colleagues, regardless of role, and treat each with mutual respect.

7. Be Prepared for Conflict

No relationship and no team will always be conflict-free. Interpersonal friction will mar even the most successful collaborations on occasion.

It's not that conflict won't occur, but how team members handle it when it does. At those times, patience and understanding can ease tensions, as can refocuse attention on the patient’s needs.

8. Define Communication Strategies

In sports, the best defense is a good offense. The best defense against miscommunication is to agree upon communication strategies long before a crisis arises.

Strategies include setting clear guidelines around preferred methods of communication among staff, determining what information to pass along to the physician in a given situation, and defining an escalation process to facilitate timely communication in critical circumstances.  

9. Hold Regular Team Huddles

Providers and staff can benefit from team huddles as a way to communicate and share information concurrently, preferably early in the shift. Current literature indicates that daily team huddles result in fewer interruptions during the rest of the day and immediate clarification of issues.

10. Set Up a 'Joint Operations Committee'

Because many facilities have no formal forum for sharing ideas and formulating processes, SCP Health developed a Joint Operations Committee (JOC) to facilitate communication and teamwork among clinical staff.

A JOC provides a structured model for teamwork that fosters collaborative communication and multi-disciplinary perspectives on challenges faced by clinicians and patients alike.

Conclusion

Effective communication skills can be learned, so devote the time and resources necessary to help your staff improve theirs.

High-functioning teams that communicate effectively have tremendous potential to promote patient well-being and your hospital's welfare.

Just trying to improve communication and team-building skills can bring positive results in improved provider and staff performance, hospital culture, patient experience, hospital reputation, and even financial outcomes.

Improving communication is something we value highly at SCP Health.  We cultivate transparent business relationships with open lines of communication — and we can help facilities like yours strengthen your team's communication skills, too.

Related Resources:

Blog: Administrative Leadership’s Impact on ED Physician Retention
Resource: EM/HM Integration Guide
Resource: Guide to Establishing an EM/HM Joint Operations Committee