The Keys to Effective Health Communication

There are many challenges in the field of effective health communication. Changing demographics, cultural diversity, different languages, more engaged and informed patients, shortages of healthcare personnel are just some of them. In this article, we take a closer look.
The Keys to Effective Health Communication

Last update: 17 August, 2021

Healthcare professionals and patients tend to agree on the importance of effective health communication. However, in the complex and changing health care and psychological environment, it seems to be increasingly difficult to achieve effective healthcare-patient communication.

Changing demographics, cultural diversity, different languages, more engaged and informed patients, healthcare staffing shortages, and other factors converge to create particularly difficult healthcare communication challenges.

In order to communicate clearly, honestly, and directly with patients, healthcare professionals must establish a good rapport. In fact, they need to practice active listening to show courtesy and sensitivity. They must also verify the patient’s understanding of their diagnosis or treatment options. These elements of good communication may seem obvious, but people in stressful, fast-paced environments, like healthcare, tend to forget them.

This article discusses the importance of effective healthcare communication. In addition, it gives some specific suggestions to improve this critical aspect of effective care.

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

-Albert Schweitzer-

An example of health communication.

Promoting treatment adherence through health communication

Patients need to trust the healthcare professionals in charge of their progress. In fact, the patient’s adherence to treatment is much greater when they have a fluid relationship with the professionals caring for them. This improves their psychological predisposition to face the disease and makes it easier for them to follow the doctor’s instructions.

On the other hand, badly communicated information can have negative consequences both for the healthcare professional and for the healthcare organization to which they belong. Especially if this failure seriously impacts a patient.

Health communication in stressful situations

Courtesy, patience, and parity prove good allies for professionals facing the new realities of current medical and/or psychological care. They help ensure proper healthcare communication in stressful situations. That’s because patients might feel frustrated, worried, and agitated with regard to their health care, which can subsequently lead to them making a complaint.

Parity involves peer-to-peer communication. Healthcare professionals should avoid what may be perceived as a paternalistic approach in their language, tone of voice, and body language. Furthermore, patience, tolerance, and endurance might often be difficult but they’re always necessary.

Consultation time

Santiago Alonso, Vice-President and Institutional Relations Coordinator of the Spanish Forum for Patients (FEP) recommends the need to increase consultation times. He insists that patients must be aware of their illness and, above all, their overall health. Furthermore, in terms of new technology, he states that this should never be an obstacle. In fact, it should free up more time for doctors to talk to their patients.

The importance of active listening

Healthcare professionals should always make reasonable efforts to listen to their patients’ health problems. Active listening involves focusing on the patient and suspending their own frame of reference. Then, having actively listened, they’ll be able to verify and rephrase the patient’s words. In addition, patients will see them as attentive and conscientious professionals.

Clinicians should also consider periodically summarizing information gleaned from conversations with their patients, including extended dialogues. These can help clarify information, validate understanding, and provide an opportunity for the asking and answering of any new questions.

Many practitioners treat patients as possessing limited physical and psychological health knowledge. In fact, the patient’s ability to read, understand, and use health information can affect their compliance and the success of their treatment. Furthermore, misunderstandings also increase the risk of side effects.

The use of plain language, verifying what patients understand, and asking if they have any questions can improve the effectiveness of clinician-patient communications. Printed documents and illustrations can also be helpful.

Communicating bad health news

No professional likes to deal with bad outcomes or deliver bad news to patients, but it’s often unavoidable. In difficult times, patients and their families often turn to their psychologists, physicians, and nurses for answers and support. In most cases, an honest and timely discussion of the problem with the patient and their family is helpful.

Many communication models are available to help clinicians convey bad news to patients. Most of these models have the following in common: choosing the right place, showing empathy, communicating the facts clearly, exploring the patient’s understanding of what they just learned, and establishing the next steps.  Finally, having a plan of action provides the most valuable assistance, regardless of the relevant professional’s preferred model.

A person patting another's back.

Defusing tense situations

Mutual respect and understanding forge good patient-physician relationships. Indeed, a caring attitude and acknowledgment of the patient’s or family member’s concerns helps to reduce any friction.

When a practitioner’s communication style doesn’t meet the patient’s needs, it may contribute to problems of understanding and frustration on the part of both parties. In this case, the clinician should consider changing their approach. For example, by describing the situation differently or using less technical language.

In some circumstances, the decision to transfer the patient to another colleague or healthcare professional may be an option in order to improve the therapeutic relationship. Because it’s often better to put an end to a conflictual conversation in order to neutralize the situation.

In addition, physician-patient relationships are often particularly tense. For instance, there are situations in which an argument with an aggressive patient leads to a confrontation. The professional approach requires the clinician to take steps to defuse the situation.

Remaining calm, summarizing problems, and offering possible solutions can be helpful. However, healthcare professionals shouldn’t tolerate verbal abuse. Nor should they ever place themselves or their colleagues in situations that may expose them to harm.

Telephone and electronic communication

These kinds of communication are becoming increasingly common between physicians and patients. However, clinicians must be satisfied that the information they possess about the patient and their condition is adequate in order to provide telephone counseling. Furthermore, they should document discussions in case their advice is subsequently questioned.

Despite the potential benefits of electronic communication, practitioners should remain aware of the associated risks and take appropriate precautions. The three main areas of liability involved with electronic communications are privacy and protection of personal information, response time, and clarity of communication.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.