How well do you communicate with your clients? We are, after all, experts in human communication. Shouldn’t that mean that we are good at communicating with the people we serve?
Unfortunately, this may not always be the case. Like many other health care providers, SLPs and audiologists often have trouble communicating clearly so that clients fully understand and can use the information we share. We tend to use jargon and talk in medical or technical terms that are not easily understood by the average person. We use words like “dysarthria” or “sensorineural.” We talk about a person’s “standard scores,” “functional abilities,” and degree of hearing loss in terms of “decibels.” We also tend to share written information that is very dense and complex and do so without spending time explaining the information we’ve given out. This has been demonstrated in studies of the readability of communication disorder-related brochures as well as reflected in responses to ASHA surveys about how consumer materials are used.
Patient-provider communication is a hot topic these days. Do an Internet search of the term “patient provider communication” and you’ll find resources from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the American Medical Association, scholarly journals, and more. Go to the Joint Commission website and you’ll find new standards regarding effective, culturally competent patient communication. Closer to home, a group interested parties, including a number of ASHA members, have joined together and formed the Patient-Provider Communication Forum in an attempt to further patient-provider communication across the continuum of care. Patient-provider communication, including issues related to health literacy, is fast becoming as serious an issue in health care as universal precautions. In fact, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has branded its information about health literacy as a universal precaution. Makes sense if you consider that poor communication can result in very harmful consequences and poor outcomes if medical advice is not understood and followed.
So, how do you think you do in regards to communicating with your clients? Do you think they understand what you are telling them? Do they appear to read brochures and other information you give them? And, more importantly, do you think they understand that information well enough to follow through on any recommendations in it? What do you do to try to improve your communication with clients and families? As experts in human communication, we can lead the charge on effective patient-provider communication. But first we need to be good at it ourselves.
Amy Hasselkus, M.A., CCC-SLP, is associate director of health care services in speech-language pathology at ASHA. She is also currently enrolled in a Masters degree program in communication at George Mason University, with an emphasis on health communication.