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Three Guidelines for Communication with a Patient’s Loved Ones

An essential component of delivering great care and achieving better outcomes is the ability of healthcare professionals to communicate successfully and meaningfully with a patient’s family and other loved ones. This has not always been easy to achieve under healthcare’s traditional physician-centric model, where it has often been common for patients and their families to feel unheard or even ignored, as if their concerns and input are not welcome or valued. In addition to the negative emotional impact of this kind of situation, outcomes can also suffer. According to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), “a growing body of research suggests that the lack of productive communication between patients and caregivers contributes to ineffective or inappropriate care, or even fatal errors” (IHI, 2019).

A Mandatory Need for Change

The IHI admits that “learning to work with patients and families as true partners in their own care is neither easy nor intuitive” (IHI, 2019). Doing so will require myriad standard healthcare practices to change, involving a reimagining of traditional methods as well as how care is actually delivered. The urgency is increasing for organizations to transition to an environment characterized by partnership between providers, patients, and their families. For success, “Caregivers must also be willing to seek and respect input from parents and family members on issues both broad and specific” (IHI, 2019).

Effective Communication Guidelines

NurseGrid, a HealthStream partner committed to transforming healthcare for the better, recently posted “How to Communicate with a Patient’s Loved Ones,” which advises healthcare staff how to deal with the concerns of a patient’s relatives and explained how the internet and other healthcare policies have led to rising patient expectations. The blog post offered three guidelines for understanding and creating a healthcare atmosphere where communication is used more effectively. The advice includes:

1. Adapt to the Rising Expectations for Healthcare
With healthcare information of all kinds readily available on the internet, people are doing lots of research and taking their health into their own hands. Not all the information is accurate, however, and correcting mistaken assumptions is often part of the communications job for providers. A best practice is to anticipate unrealistic expectations and also to appreciate the anxiety of financial pressures connected to the cost of care.

2. Focus on the Results
Rather than attempting to clear up confusion about treatment or attempting in vain to get someone to forget what was read on the internet, focus instead on results and the health of the patient. Family and loved ones may have unrealistic expectations tied to misunderstanding of the prognosis. Steer attention to the current moment—explain the situation and all possible outcomes and do your best to explain what’s happening in the present.

3. Listen and Make the Best of a Difficult Situation
It might be impossible to reach common ground with a patient’s loved ones. That doesn’t remove the imperative need to listen to their concerns and always react with compassion. Make sure all involved feel they are heard. Be open in terms of body language and never act too busy. Here are some body language tips:

  • Don’t fold your arms across your chest, keep them at your side.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Keep your hands free and don’t fiddle with anything when talking to the patient’s relatives.
  • Meet them at their level, either sitting or standing.