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Tips for effective communication during Covid, even behind a mask

Posted by Alyssa Malmquist on February 02, 2021
Alyssa Malmquist
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Even without a pandemic, effective communication is critical throughout several industries and healthcare is no exception. As healthcare professionals and frontline workers accommodate to new protocols and modified safety measures, it can be challenging to communicate with patients in different ways.

Clear, consistent communication leads to positive patient outcomes

A commitment to clear, consistent communication prevents problems down the road. Why? Because if a patient misinterprets care, the delivery of that care may be compromised — and compromised care can lead to negative patient outcomes.

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According to the Institute for Healthcare Communication, "A clinician may conduct as many as 150,000 patient interviews during a typical career. If viewed as a healthcare procedure, the patient interview is the most commonly used procedure that the clinician will employ. Yet communication training for clinicians and other healthcare professionals historically has received far less attention throughout the training process than have other clinical tasks. This is so even as evidence continues to mount that a structured approach to communication measurably improves healthcare delivery."

Fundamentals of patient communication

The Studer Group uses the acronym AIDET to identify the following five fundamentals of patient communication:

  1. Acknowledge—Greet the patient by name. Make eye contact, smile, and acknowledge family or friends in the room.
  2. Introduce—Introduce yourself with your name, skill set, professional certification, and experience.
  3. Duration—Give an accurate time expectation for tests, physician arrival, and identify next steps. When this is not possible, give a time in which you will update the patient on progress.
  4. Explanation—Explain step-by-step what to expect next, answer questions, and let the patient know how to contact you, such as a nurse call button.
  5. Thank you—Thank the patient and/or family. You might express gratitude to them for choosing your hospital or for their communication and cooperation. Thank family members for being there to support the patient.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are recognizing the value of providing patients with the alternative of virtual meetings. This only increases the need for accuracy in communication between health-care workers — and between health-care professionals with patients.

To make sure that virtual visits are effective, your patients may need to make adjustments to which device they use. For example, if a patient’s webcam is old or malfunctioning (or if their computer has no camera and microphone) ask them to switch to an app on their mobile phone. Oftentimes, a person’s smartphone is the most up to date piece of technology they own, and the quality of smartphone cameras these days is outstanding.

Communicating effectively behind a mask

Masks are another barrier in communicating with patients, which is why it is more important than ever to connect with your patients in new ways that resonate. For example, empathy and compassion are crucial components of effective communication but harder to express through with a mask. To make up for that disconnect, MedPage Today compiled 10 strategies that incorporate communication behaviors proven to promote closeness. They are the following:

  1. Focus on what you can do.

When masked, you can still control hand gestures and tone to connect with your patients. Also, focus on making genuine eye contact throughout.

  1. Be an active listener.

When wearing a mask, your nonverbal communication is more prominent. Nod your head or lean your body forward so that the patient feels validated and empowered to ask the important questions.

  1. Do not engage in uncomfortable levels of eye contact.

That being said, don't get carried away with eye contact so that it becomes off-putting. There is a big difference between genuine eye contact and continuous eye contact. Too much eye contact can be misinterpreted as dominant and make the patient uncomfortable.

  1. Mirror what you are saying with hand gestures and body language.

When entering or leaving a room, you can incorporate simple hand gestures with your greetings and goodbyes. This could be a shrug, hand wave, or thumbs up—depending on your message. When you match your words with a movement, it magnifies what you're trying to say.

  1. Exaggerate emotion with your eyes, not your entire face.

Keep your patients focus by concentrating on the message your eyes and hand signals are relaying.

  1. Use vocal variety to convey emotion.

Since a mask hides a smile, a patient may interpret a neutral expression as unfavorable. Leverage your pitch, tone, and volume to convey your emotion in a positive light.

  1. Focus on talking slower, not louder.

Talking louder may be received as aggressive when a patient is trying to understand you. Speaking clearly at a slower pace increases patients' understanding of your message while showing them that you aren’t in a rush to deliver care—and therefore value their time.

  1. Look for empathic opportunities.

When a patient presents you with a challenge, emotion, or progress, take that opportunity to respond with acknowledgment and support, knowing this may be harder to be seen with a mask.

  1. Minimize dominant communication.

As noted above, a dominant tone can be translated negatively. Trying to control the conversation with dominance only widens the distance between the masks on you and your patient. If you make a patient wait, give a reason. If a patient is talking, let them finish before you jump in.

  1. Modify your communication to match your patient's.

Matching communication helps show interest and improve the development of trust between patients and healthcare professionals. Match the patients’ talk time, body language, gestures, and eye contact—to combat the challenge of communicating with masks.

Topics: Providers, COVID-19

Disclaimer: The content in this blog post represents the clinical opinions of the providers at AllWays Health Partners and is based on the most currently available clinical and governmental guidance.

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