No matter your role or responsibilities, if you work in healthcare you’re reliant upon efficient, effective and accurate communication with everyone in your community, from patients and loved ones to interprofessional colleagues and insurance companies.
So this week, we’re asking: how does communication in healthcare develop to match the times, and how is it changing now? But first, the most important question: why is communication important in healthcare?
Why is effective communication important in healthcare?
Here is a list of just a few groups that benefit from healthcare professionals communicating effectively in the form of advocacy and consent include:
People who don’t speak English
People with disabilities who may not be able to advocate for themselves
People with conditions that cause mental deterioration and therefore may not be able to advocate for themselves
When you think about it, that probably covers a huge portion of your own community. The reason that communication is so important in healthcare – not only for the groups listed above, but everyone involved including fellow practitioners, loved ones and health workers – is because it reduces the possibility of mismanagement.
Communication occurs prior to, during and after treatment of patients or clients, so is one of the few elements of care that remains of key importance all the way through the patient or client’s journey.
What is the history of communication in healthcare?
The transfer of information from patient to practitioner – and back again – is always (and most likely always will be) the beginning and end of each patient’s care journey. Rather than investigate the whole history of communication in healthcare, it’s more interesting to briefly have a look at the constantly developing relationship between professionals, patients and communities as a whole.
Even as far back as Ancient Egypt, physicians – who relied on a mixture of incantations, herbal remedies and surgical procedures – were recording their findings and sharing them with others in the field. One of the fathers of medicine, Ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep, is largely thought to have written most of the Edwin Smith Papyrus which details presentations, anatomy and treatments from his time.
During this period and for a long time afterwards, physicians and healers were often thought of as irrefutably correct: people receiving care were not in a position to question the physicians decisions, or even understand what it was that was being done. In this sense, communication at this time was more practitioner-to-practitioner than practitioner-to-patient or vice versa.
Thousands of years later, King Henry VIII of England granted charter to the Company of Royal Barber Surgeons, which was the first act to regulate surgery in England. However, women were barred from entry into the Company. As such, the roles of midwives and nurses became narrower but clearer – especially within small, local communities: these women would largely work unpaid, and often acted as mediator between members of their local communities and surgeons. This is a great example of patient-to-professional communication, and highlights the legacy of nurses and midwives working on the ground with their communities since the middle ages.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and you’ll probably be considering the advent of technology and the internet. Even today, we’re still seeing the effects of having information at your fingertips: patients are more informed regarding health conditions and diagnoses, family members are able to stay in touch no matter where they are, professionals can summon the medical records of most patients with only a click of a button. There is a constant stream of information moving back and forth between professionals and their peers, professionals and their patients, patients and their personal networks who share their experiences.
How did COVID-19 change communication in healthcare?
Australia, along with most other countries, most recently saw a big change in communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between early 2020 and early 2022, the use of telehealth skyrocketed: according to the former Health Minister for Australia, G. Hunt, 'over 100 million telehealth services were delivered to over 17 million Australians' (Hunt, 2022).
Similarly, e-prescriptions and COVID-19 self-testing in the form of RATs also became normalised in the face of restricted access to GPs and hospitals.
As the general population was asked to refrain from physically attending emergency services and general practices, healthcare professionals had to quickly become accustomed to conducting verbal – or even visual, with the help of video calls – examinations.
The effect of this upon the most vulnerable in our communities – including recent migrants, refugees, Indigenous Australians and older adults – was groundbreaking: the act of bringing healthcare into the home is proving to benefit almost everyone, as well as free up space, time and other resources for more acute presentations.
If you’re interested in a more in-depth exploration of this question, listen to Andrew Blythe explore this idea in a new Ausmed lecture: How Patient Communication Has Changed | Ausmed
Where can you learn more about how you communicate in healthcare?
At Ausmed, we believe that soft skills – such as communication, team work and professional development – are core tenets of a long, strong, and fulfilling career in health. That’s why we create learning resources that focus on these skills and provide you with expert advice and insight into the sharpening of soft skills.
To learn more about great communication and the acute effects it can have on a patient’s health journey, complete this course with guidance from expert educator Sean Smith: Communication for Greater Care | Ausmed
If you work in an area where you’re often engaging with people with disabilities, read this in-depth article that provides a guide for appropriate and effective communication techniques in your work: Communicating Effectively with People with Disability | Ausmed
If you work in aged care, you may often engage with residents who are not confident in their speech or cannot advocate for themselves. This article explains why it’s important for residents to only share their story once, and how workplaces can better transfer information between team members and external healthcare services: Effectively Communicating Residents' Care Needs | Ausmed
There are over 80 resources related to communication in Ausmed’s resource library. Have a browse now and make your communication even more effective for your patients and colleagues at work: Communication Resources | Ausmed
Hunt, G., 2022. ‘Telehealth hits 100 million services milestone.’ Health.Gov: Ministers. Accessed 4 August 2022 via https://www.health.gov.au/ministers/the-hon-greg-hunt-mp/media/telehealth-hits-100-million-services-milestone#:~:text=Between%2013%20March%202020%20and,services%20to%20support%20their%20patients.