By Doug Lawson, PhD, CEO of St. Luke’s Health
Communication is key to delivering effective health care, and those who hold leadership positions have a responsibility to ensure information is shared with team members, patients and the public in a transparent and easy-to-understand way. Equally important is that communication shouldn’t be reserved for select times, it should happen constantly. Good communication is our best defense when faced with obstacles—and it’s the best strategy for avoiding them.
What We’ve Learned From COVID-19
When it comes to effective communication, the COVID-19 pandemic taught us the old adage “less is more” doesn’t really apply to health care. More is always better, even when there may not be anything new to say. When the pandemic began, everyone, including patients, health care workers and leaders, was learning on a daily basis. No one knew what to expect from day to day, and the limited information we did have changed rapidly.
As health care leaders, we had to feel our way through an unparalleled situation, which meant guidelines and policies were constantly being modified. At St. Luke’s Health, we realized a need for new and improved communication strategies.
COVID-19 presented several key takeaways:
We must have mechanisms in place to ensure frontline workers receive communications in real time, not in Wednesday’s team meeting, but as soon as it becomes available.
We must be willing to go above and beyond to answer questions from team members and patients alike, even when we may not know the answer yet ourselves. When necessary, it’s important to say, “I don’t know at this time; the data is not clear on this issue,” and commit to following up when answers do become available.
When changes are being made to processes, we must allow individuals to express their concerns and be willing to explain, as many times as needed, why the changes are being made. Explaining the “why” over and over is an essential part of being an effective communicator.
While COVID was an extraordinary situation that called for extreme communication measures, these principles should be applied to all kinds of circumstances in health care. When we make changes, especially if we are altering policies or processes that have been in place for a long time, it’s vitally important to be transparent with everyone affected and do everything we can to ensure people understand the reasoning and what they can expect in the future.
The Power of Virtual Communication
The pandemic also moved us to leverage the communication tools we had at our disposal, including virtual ones. While those of us who’ve worked many years in health care may not be as familiar or comfortable with online communication as we are with traditional methods, COVID made all of us keenly aware of what we can and should do with technology. For example:
Social media can be a very effective tool to quickly and efficiently reach and engage with large numbers of people. Patients can easily view messaging on mobile devices as health care organizations work to spread awareness of services and events. Social media platforms can also provide patients with an effective way to respond to communications and ask questions.
Virtual meeting platforms, such as Zoom, are extremely valuable as they provide a great way to connect with employees and other health care leaders. Virtual meetings can be used to not only share information but also discuss communication strategies.
Secure online access to health information through a service such as MyChart makes communicating with providers easier, and doing things like making appointments and viewing test results more convenient. This is a win for everyone. When patients can reach busy providers electronically and schedule appointments virtually, it’s easier and more convenient for everyone.
A Two-Way Street
We also must remember effective communication goes both ways. Patients and team members should feel comfortable sharing their ideas with leadership and asking as many questions as necessary. This is fundamental for patients and team members to feel their voices are being heard and their questions, concerns or complaints are taken seriously.
Embracing better communication also provides opportunities for health care leaders to continue learning. Working in the medical field, as a clinical professional or not, always comes with learning something new, making constant, open communication such a necessity. Health care workers must ensure they are effectively comprehending and responding to patient concerns and health care leaders must remain open to employee feedback.
If communication breaks down then all facets of health care are at risk, including the quality of care we deliver and patient outcomes. Remember to stay open to learning new ways of sharing and receiving information—and stay committed to being transparent. When we nurture an environment of trust and continue to adapt and grow, we’ll be in a good place as health care continues to evolve.