Barriers to Effective Communication in Your Healthcare

Marina Emery

Marina Emery

September 10, 2020

Believe it or not, communicating medical information is difficult on both the doctor and the patient.

Good communication results in patients leaving with a good understanding of their treatment plan and possible outcomes. It’s important to recognize the barriers to effective communication in healthcare to make sure that happens.

Communication Barriers

The first step to achieving good communication is to recognize any barriers. It is not a one-sided problem and requires effort from both the doctor and the patient. 

Barriers on the patient side include:

  • Raising their voice

  • Withholding information regarding medical problems, medication, other therapies or even personal problems that could affect treatment

  • Not asking for clarification or pretending to understand what their doctor is discussing

  • Being reluctant to ask for more time to make important medical decisions

  • Being embarrassed or scared to ask a question about a symptom or treatment

  • Not preparing for the appointment by writing a list of questions and concerns 

  • Not being an active participant by asking follow-up questions or writing notes during the appointment

While on the doctor side, they are:

  • Raising their voice

  • Belittling patients and “talking down” to them

  • Using medical terms without explaining their meaning

  • Talking to patients in a way that indicates they are too busy

  • Pressuring patients to make an immediate medical decision without adequate knowledge or time to think about it

  • Not having pen and paper available for the patients to write down questions or notes

Ways to Overcome Communication Barriers in Healthcare

Once you’ve recognized the barriers, it’s time to do your part to an effective communicator. 

As a patient you can: 

  • Save as much contact information as possible. Record every login, phone, and fax number. It can even help to know the layout of the facility you’re going to as staff roles and contact numbers are often associated with physical locations.

  • Keep your primary care doctor and all caregivers updated on your treatment. They are the quarterbacks of your care and should have the most complete picture of your situation. If you saw a specialist, they won’t know unless you tell them.

  • Get copies of medical records. This way you have documentation to share with each of your providers. Your providers can only access each others’ notes and results if you’re seeing providers that share an electronic record system. Otherwise, they need the paper copies either in hand or faxed to them. It is essential that a new provider has all of your medical records when you see them for the first time. Without it, they are making a lot of assumptions based on word of mouth which can waste a visit for you and them. 

  • Keep a journal. Whether you’re in the hospital or clinic, you’re going to retell your story over and over again to each new provider you encounter. Keeping a journal in timeline format will make this repeated storytelling more efficient and useful for your care team, and less frustrating for you. 

As a doctor you can: 

  • Have your patient repeat all the information back to you. By having your patients tell you what was discussed during the appointment, you can make sure that they understand everything you have explained. This will also help you know what they have missed or misinterpreted so you can go back and explain it to them again. 

  • Provide visuals. 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. By simply using visual prompts or even just your hands, you will be able to help your patients remember more. This can improve patient compliance with follow up care.

  • Use simple language. Most, if not all, of your patients will have little to no science background and medical terminology is already very difficult to understand. Using clear, simple language that your patients will understand will allow them to trust you and adhere to what was discussed. 

  • Learn to listen and understand. Many people forget that listening is essential to effective communication between patient and doctor. Giving your patients attention and encouraging them to speak freely will make them feel more comfortable to express any fears or concerns without the risk of being brought down. By really listening to your patients, you will be able to gather all the information you need to provide them with the best care possible.