As GP practices grow larger and busier, effective communication with patients and team members is more important than ever.

There’s no doubt that being able to communicate with patients of all ages, personalities, and nationalities is a critical skill for General Practitioners. But communication extends further than just your ability to relate – it means developing systems and processes that support all aspects of patient care appropriately.

Here are some basic principles that will help you more effectively in every day practice.

Communication is a two-way process

A sympathetic ear goes a long way, so hone your active listening skills. Listening to patients and understanding their wishes is as important as talking to them about diagnosis and treatment. While asking lots of questions about the medical issue at hand is obviously necessary, asking lots of personal questions will ensure that you gather other important information that can help you gauge whether or not you’re ‘on the same wavelength’. It can also alert you to other factors – domestic or social problems that may need addressing.

Make eye contact

When you keep eye contact with the person you are talking to it indicates that you are focused and paying attention. It gives them a good indication that you are actually listening, and ‘hearing’ what they have to say.

Put yourself in the patient’s position

Respect and empathy are paramount to good communication. No matter how busy you are or pressured your schedule is, you should always aim to make sure that your patient knows that right in this moment, he or she has your undivided attention. It’s important that patients feel validated and not rushed.  Also show your patients the consideration you’d like to be shown if you were in their shoes. If they have specific religious or cultural beliefs you need to acknowledge these and aim to deal with them in line with the patient’s wishes and concerns.

Learn some basic body language

Firstly, check yourself – are your non-verbal signals showing that you’re open and approachable? Your facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and posture should not be defensive or intimidating. Remember that you want to put your patient as ease, and a warm smile can go a long way. Understanding body language can also be helpful when you’re assessing your patient too – offering vital clues to whether they are anxious or defensive and these can be a cue for you to adapt your style to the patient.

Avoid medical jargon

Every profession has its jargon – banking, finance, car mechanics, the tax department … And so too does the medical profession. The important thing to remember is that most patients don’t have any idea what these specialist medical terms mean. A good habit to get into is to mirror the language of your patient. body, language, medical, jargon

Make sure your patient has understood your consultation by giving them the chance to ask questions, or ask them to reiterate to you the key points they’ve heard and comprehended. It’s also a good idea to have information and fact sheets for as many conditions available readily on hand so that you can give the patient extra information to take away and digest in their own time.  

Effective interactions with colleagues and staff.

If you need to delegate a task or make a referral then ensure that you are clear and specific about what needs to be done. The healthcare profession is under pressure nationwide, staff are busy and often multi-tasking so hand over information in a place and at a time when your colleague or team member is able to give you their full attention. No matter how tempting it is, avoid important patient-elated conversations in the break room and the corridor. Set meetings if you have to.

Document fastidiously.

Document all instructions for patient care and treatment clearly but concisely in the records. No matter how much the administrative burdens of a busy practice can seem cumbersome, they are critical. As GP practices get busier, having excellent documentation across all areas of the practice makes things simpler if you need to hand over to a locum, or bring in casual staff, or if you’re providing flexible workplace hours and staff are regularly conducting handovers between shifts.

Create a communication culture.

Encourage everyone in the practice to communicate clearly and courteously with patients and colleagues. Put effective, streamlined processes and systems in place to manage documentation.  Creating a ‘communication culture’ includes clearly defining roles and responsibilities, ensuring transparency and accountability, encouraging collaboration and team work, and being ‘diversity aware’. The latter is particularly important if you treat patients or have staff from other cultures.  

Never take your ability to communicate for granted.
We can all improve on our effectiveness in this area and there are good courses available. Attending a communications skills course or a practice training seminar can help you to learn different techniques to build better rapport with colleagues and patients which not only makes for a happier, more openly communicative workplace and medical practice, but a far more effective and efficient one too.

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