Paths to Patient-Centered Care

Communication: a Powerful Remedy to Cure Ailing Quality and Experiences in Healthcare

The rising emphasis on “The Patient Experience” has stimulated an overwhelming spectrum of improvement offerings: patient-centered architecture, facility design, technology devices, patient engagement/education tools, survey evaluation tools, marketing campaigns, fashionable hospital gowns, artistic decor…and so much more! How do we rank and prioritize the plethora of improvement opportunities? What is MOST important? Communication represents a key element in the search for a cure to heal patient and provider experiences.

What Patients Are Saying

Patients increasingly report communication as crucial to the delivery of high-quality healthcare. Listening and attentiveness was recently listed as the top factor patients’ note when evaluating provider quality; 59% of the patients surveyed referenced patient-clinician relationships and provider personalities as primary factors for evaluating high-quality care1. Communication represents a key solution for administrators and patient professionals striving to improve quality and experiences in healthcare.

Rising to the Challenge

Clinicians must receive appropriate support and training if expected to improve performance on experience survey reports. Significant improvements in the communication domains require healthcare leaders to commit to strategic plans and to incorporate communication skills training programs. Communication improvement requires systemic, institutional buy-in on a philosophical and financial level. Healthcare administrators now look particularly to involve physicians in patient experience initiatives, and there is widespread agreement that physicians’ communication skills are necessary for optimal patient-centered care. However, until recently, medical schools and residency programs largely did not include fundamental communication skills training, and most practicing physicians do not undergo such training.

Patient-centered Communication Skills

Evidence shows that teaching patient-centered communication skills to providers significantly improves patient experience/satisfaction with care. Healthcare leaders committed to improving patient experience must explore constructive processes to encourage providers in the on-going development of patient-centered communication habits; a proactive approach may engage internal communication champions/trainers/coaches (ideally in peer-to-peer relationships) and incorporate a communication skills training curriculum to equip providers with best practices. Communication training and peer support builds the capacity for healthcare providers to practice more compassionate, patient-centered care while avoiding burnout and compassion fatigue. Numerous methods to teach communication skills have been described in academic literature; nearly all incorporate concepts of explicitly eliciting and setting an agenda at the outset of the visit, incorporating empathic statements, and effectively closing the visit2. Many providers lack competency in these fundamental interpersonal skills and may benefit substantial by engaging in training to develop more effective patient encounters.

Arming for the Complexities of Care

Specific patient contexts require more advanced communication skills in order to reach successful outcomes. For example, effective management of chronic health conditions demands more collaborative and engaging encounters; providers must assess the patient’s perspective, their motivation to change, and their commitment to maintain proactive health behaviors. Geriatric patients, as another example of a distinct population, often confront communication challenges related to hearing loss or physical and cognitive impairments. Health literacy levels vary widely Providers must communicate carefully when sharing health information as adherence, safety, and health outcomes suffer due to reduced levels of health literacy.

Empowerment for Clinicians

Communication training opportunities empower clinicians by enhancing skills such as eliciting patient concerns, listening attentively, and responding with empathy. Equipping clinicians with strong communication skills strengthens the patient-provider relationship, enhances team collaboration, and contributes to more accurate and meaningful diagnoses. Despite the tremendous assortment of prescriptions to improve “The Patient Experience”, we must maintain a central focus on communication as the most powerful remedy to cure ailing quality and experiences in healthcare.

1Finding Quality Doctors: How Americans Evaluate Provider Quality in the United States. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. July 2014. © Copyright 2014. The Associated Press and NORC the Resource Section of The American Academy on Communication in Healthcare for access to articles and evidence or contact info@AACHonline.orgEditor’s Note: Laura Cooley will be one of featured speakers at the Patient Advocate Conference in Orlando, FL on December 3-5, 2014.


  • John King says:

    Laura, I think the notion that “Communication represents a key solution…” is a profound statement. It’s not just a verb or a process; effective communication is in fact a solution towards better care. Great post!

  • Nice piece Laura underscoring the importance of physician-patient communications when it comes to the patient experience. It bears pointing out that the benefits of improved physician-patient communication extend far beyond better patient experiences. High quality doctor-patient communications is essential to the accurate diagnosis and treatment of patients, Rx adherence, reductions in preventable hospital readmissions, improved visit productivity, a reduction in medical errors and improved physician satisfaction.

    Stephen Wilkins. MPH

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