Behind the Mask: 4 Tips to Improve Patient Communication

Now that masks or other facial coverings are mandatory, communication between the healthcare provider and patient takes on even greater importance. Before, physicians and other clinicians could rely more heavily on words and a smile to evoke comfort in a nervous patient. 

Today, however, providers must employ other measures to ensure open and clear communication.

Matt Eventoff, communication and messaging strategist, founder of The Oratory Project and owner of Princeton Public Speaking, provides several key tips to improve verbal and nonverbal communication with patients in today’s healthcare environment.

4 strategies to better communicate with patients

1. Create an environment of mutual understanding  

“When a patient walks in now, two things have changed dramatically in recent times: the amount of information available online to anyone and the state of heightened anxiety due to the coronavirus,” he explained. “Before you even walk in that room, understand that the person you are walking in to see has most likely researched their symptoms. Patients have gotten really good at self-diagnosing and they are primed with information that is probably incorrect.”

Physicians and clinicians must understand that this is the current state of the world, and part of caring for patients includes validating their concerns and the research they may have conducted on their own about any symptoms they are having.

“Just having that understanding is something that I have seen a number of wonderful physicians do. Just simply walking in, smiling and saying hello. ”

2. Slow things down

Because many patients are feeling more uneasy in the current environment, making an effort to slow down can help improve communication—starting when you first encounter the patient.

“Simply taking the cadence a bit slower and just slowing down the angst in the room before any words are spoken,” Eventoff explained.

“People are uncomfortable,” he added. “We are not used to wearing masks into a doctor’s office. We are used to a surgeon wearing a mask but not a regular doctor.” Eventoff noted that slowing everything down can seem counterintuitive for physicians who are overwhelmed with sickness and trying to help as many people as possible, but the effort is worth it.

Slowing down and taking the time to listen can relieve tension in the patient and help open the flow of communication during the rest of the medical encounter.

3. Beware of body language and nonverbal communication cues

Successful communication spans far beyond the spoken word. With masks and other forms of personal protective equipment in use, adapting additional communication strategies can be a key driver in building the patient–clinician relationship.

Eventoff said that the context for patient encounters have changed because a lot of the cues your patients are used to experiencing may be mitigated by a facial covering. For example, every doctor’s office has a specific smell and even taste, and those key senses are not accessible when a patient’s mouth and nose are covered.

“We experience life through our five senses; now at least two of those senses are muted through a mask,” he continued. “Then we get into our nonverbal cues, and a smile behind a mask is a harder thing to identify; you have to look up at the orbital muscles.”

Eye contact also plays a critical role in allowing healthcare providers to better communicate with patients. Really focusing on each patient and giving them your full attention will help them feel more comfortable and ready to communicate.

4. Don’t forget to express empathy

Becoming a more effective communicator takes practice. It also requires the desire to understand how your patients are truly feeling. Empathy and compassion are two pillars of emotional intelligence. Most physicians and other healthcare professionals are already familiar with these best practices.

“Having empathy is more important than ever,” Eventoff said. “The empathy to me carries the day, always has carried the day, and I think now more than ever.”

Building Trust with Effective Doctor–Patient Communication 

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