Among the multitudes of challenges facing providers and patients in healthcare, from lack of access to lack of funds, communication issues are too often overlooked. This is because the way we do things is often seen as secondary to the thing itself. But the reality is that if you fail to communicate vital information properly, then it can render that information useless.
This is why it’s so important that the healthcare industry keep the importance of effective communication top-of-mind.
An avalanche of options
Healthcare professionals are constantly sharing medical information with each other and with patients, and this communication occurs through many means. Methods can include emails, calls, video calls, text messages, instant messaging, digital file transfers, paper files and charts, pagers, and of course by talking directly person-to-person.
While many of the new communication methods ushered in by the digital age have been transformative in their ability to convey information instantaneously, the sheer number of choices has also become overwhelming. Now, many healthcare workers find themselves having to juggle so many different programs and portals and apps that it becomes hard to keep track of everything.
The information being shared through these methods by healthcare workers – which could include diagnoses, test results, medical advice, and more – is frequently very important, very time sensitive, and extremely private and personal. Ensuring that it is communicated accurately can literally be a matter of life and death. Research conducted by the firm CRICO Strategies found that 30% of medical malpractice cases evaluated from 2009 to 2013 involved communication problems as a contributing factor.
It is not difficult to imagine how this can happen. A tired nurse writes down a message from a patient experiencing a medical issue and then forgets to pass it on to the doctor. A nurse practitioner thinks she has successfully sent a critical text message to a colleague, not realizing her signal was bad and the message didn’t go through. A physician’s assistant accidentally files an urgent radiology report rather than showing it to the doctor.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Sudden surges of patients in the emergency room and ICU are bound to increase the possibility for miscommunication among the staff working in this hectic environment. The rapid adoption of video calls and other forms of telemedicine, driven by the pandemic, is also likely to compound errors, especially if people are not used to utilizing these technologies.
A heavy price
The sad fact is that miscommunication frequently happens, and at significant cost – both financial and human cost. CRICO estimated that the above-mentioned malpractice cases they reviewed amounted to $1.7 billion in hospital costs—and, more tragically, resulted in 1,744 deaths. It’s hard to believe that simple errors in passing on information can have such terrible consequences, but they do.
The medical community should be prioritizing the improvement of their communications in order to reduce the chances of these preventable and costly mistakes. Strategies could include:
- Streamlining communication methods. Find ways to minimize the number of different avenues of communication that healthcare professionals use when getting in touch with each other or with patients, so that it’s less likely that they will get confused or overlook something important. The fewer different systems a medical professional has to access and learn, the fewer opportunities for error.
- Establishing best practices. How do you handle patients who may speak little or no English—is there a protocol for translation, to ensure their problem is understood? Are doctors being given enough time to consult with patients to minimize the possibility of anxiety caused by rushing? Some problems could be mitigated by putting best practices in place that address areas where miscommunication is likely.
- Providing patients with a summary of their visit, giving them contact information in case they have follow-up questions, and granting access to imaging, files, prescriptions, etc. (perhaps through a provider’s online portal) are all ways that the provider can offer the patient clear and tangible information for them to refer to even after the consultation.
- Creating methods for review where possible so that critical information is checked for accuracy by multiple parties.
The above-mentioned methods are just a few ways to potentially improve communications. Healthcare organizations might also want to consider establishing a special task force to take on the issue, examine current practices and pain points, review new medical messaging technologies available, and then proposing changes and guidance. Individual departments and teams can take the initiative to discuss problem areas and brainstorm solutions to any communication challenges they experience.
Whatever way you approach it, addressing communications can help reduce the possibility of costly and even fatal medical mistakes that stem from miscommunications.