I’ve been reflecting on the stories different people have shared with me about talking with patients. Whether from hospital staff, community health workers, or medical staff, these stories have important things in common.
This is some of what I appreciate about you and the complexity of the work you do.
So many people now are involved in the delivery of health services. The health sector is so significant. Everyone who works in it, in some way, has an impact. In this episode, I share some things I’ve learned from people who talk with patients about how complex that is, and how hard you work to do it well.
Hi everybody, I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel and this is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. Our expertise is in teaching people about some of the most complex and pressing issues in communication today, in a relevant way that people appreciate. Our new course is for all patient-facing employees. Why? Because every interaction with patients is important, and everyone who interacts with patients deserves high-quality support. So from cafeteria to cardiology, we’ve got you covered with “Foundations of Equitable Interpersonal Communication in Health.” Visit healthcommunicationpartners.com.
Now if you’ve heard this show over time, I’ve said a bunch of times I have a background and perspective that is not common in the health sector. My doctorate’s in Language, Literacy and Education. I’ve also been really fortunate to work with many people in the health sector, in different positions, different organizations, different settings. And I’m lucky because you have shared your stories with me, in person, calls, emails, social media, meetings, at conferences, guests on this show. I’m incredibly grateful. Because you have taught me and continue to teach me a great deal about what it means to talk with patients, and how complex this part of your job is.
Now is the 5th anniversary of the Health Communication Partners site, and my doing the work I do in a more public format. And because it’s our 5th anniversary, I’ve been reflecting on stories that you’ve shared with me over the years. And though people are very differently positioned, they different roles in their organizations, of course they’re individuals, they have different ways they interact with patients, different ways they relate to patients, I have noticed some things come up again and again–across stories, people, contexts. I want to share some of this, because I’m hoping to challenge, inspire, and most of all show my support for you and the work you do.
Because people I’ve met over the years who talk to patients as part of their jobs have a deep understanding of how many ways communication relates to your work. You are so aware of how your words impact people. You’ve told me about how you’re honest even when it hurts. You’ve told me about many conversations you would rather avoid, but that you have most of them.
You work hard to come across as yourself. You’ve told me about the many languages that surround you, and the real limitations of using Google translate. You don’t lump together people even when they speak the same language.
You know your interactions with patients are not the same as other employees’ interactions with patients. Sometimes patients say different things to your colleagues than to you.
You work with patients, you’ve told me, when they’re hesitant to accept services or share any info, even though they need resources. They might not accept them. They might not accept you. They might not accept your organization. And you try hard to not take that personally.
You work hard to let people ask questions of you, and you tell me about how you ask difficult questions of yourself and of your colleagues.
You tell me so much about how you’re constantly reading people, reading situations, reading your audiences, taking the temperature of the room and adjusting what you do, what you say, even kind of where you are physically, relative to the patient.
When you’re speaking, you’re crossing cultural differences. You’re crossing history, you’re crossing class, because you know these are the things that keep people in your position from being effective.
I’ve noticed over time that you hold your knowledge and expertise seriously, and you are respectful of patient knowledge and expertise. You constantly keep learning. I am constantly hearing about the next course you are taking the next certification you got, the things that you’re reading, what you’re looking up. You’re not afraid to be beginners all over again. From one story, somebody said, “whatever knowledge I had just went out the door” and they started again.
You check your assumptions because you know that some of them can be dangerous. You try hard to meet people where they’re at, not where you wish they were or where you have been told they should be.
You see good reasons why sometimes standard advice does not fit a specific patient’s case.
You get that culture—all kinds of culture—is inseparable from what you do and from what patients do.
And you are committed to taking down barriers to equitable care. You’re increasingly demanding systems-level thinking and collective action at your organizations.
You have so much to do in the time you have with patients. You are still constantly reflecting on your role and the larger issues connected to it. In your stories, it’s incredibly clear that you want to have decent relationships with patients, whether it’s for a moment or across decades. And you know there’s so much involved with this, and that every interaction matters.
You treat patients with dignity and respect. As one person put it, you “meet the patient with a clean slate.” You don’t let the past experience or negative things affect your relationship with them.
You know you’re not here to save people or to fix them, but remembering this can sometimes be hard.
This work has an emotional toll. So you tell me about how you ask for support, how you wonder about self-care, and you are conscious about having a work/life balance. You say, “here is where I have a problem.” Sometimes you don’t have the words. Sometimes, you just lean on your colleagues.
You want to support patients and families in the ways they want to be supported, whether you’re giving them a diagnosis, or directions, or a glass of water, or a greeting in their native language.
You resist deficit models of patients, whether they’re in materials, in program designs, in program implementation, or in other people’s talk.
It’s clear that you get there’s always a power differential with you and patients, if for no other reason that you’re paid to be there.
You try to dismantle unequal relationships. You are always finding new ways to make patients equal partners in their care. You share power. You urge patients to grasp their power. You keep finding ways for them to do so.
You stand behind your values. You have a sense of shared commitment, even when there are disagreements. Because you know misunderstandings are not all on the patient side.
You seek to understand. You ask caring questions, thoughtful questions to understand what people need. What people believe about what is best. As one person put it, “not just understanding them, but ourselves”
Thank you for what you’ve taught me. I’m grateful for the chance to put this learning to use. One way I’m doing that is through my new course. It teaches all patient-facing employees to recognize and bridge the cultural mismatches that can show up in communication. Visit health communication partners.com, find me on linked or twitter. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel and this has been 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication. Audio engineering and music by Joe Liebel.