The Consequences of Poor Communication in Health Care

By Stephen Dean, Co-Founder, Keona Health
Twitter: @keonahealth

It’s shocking that communication remains a persistent problem within the health care industry. Despite the pandemic contributing to much-improved telehealth, as well as digitization rapidly transforming the way physicians communicate and operate, there are still major obstructions in communication avenues across the board.

It is paramount that the health care industry maintains effective communication channels to uphold standards and avoid any patient-related miscommunication issues. Poor or inefficient communication diminishes patient satisfaction and wellbeing. What’s more, it has major financial, legal, and operational implications. According to the Journal of Healthcare Management, U.S. hospitals lose an average of $12 billion a year because of inefficient communication among health care providers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a wealth of technology geared toward improving communication that has evolved dramatically within the space of just a few years. In reality, most miscommunications can be avoided.

Associated risks

Communication within health care has two key channels: practitioner to patient, and practitioner to practitioner. Between practitioners and patients, poor communication is any delay or inability to communicate important information such as an appointment rescheduling or health records. For example, in many cases, patients still need to attend an in-person appointment to receive medical results for security reasons.

Miscommunication between practitioners can also have negative impacts on patient outcomes and the health care practice itself. It can be as small as a delayed email that makes a physician stay on duty longer than necessary, or as serious as a misdiagnosis because the handover notes were too ambiguous.

Communication issues are rife because the health care system in the U.S. is complex, and not always up to date. Legacy systems like fax machines and pagers are still prevalent in many health settings. This shouldn’t be the case. According to EpicShare, a children’s hospital in Colorado managed to save $220,000 by eradicating pagers and replacing them with a new digital system that made the tracking and hailing of physicians far more efficient. Those are impressive savings, but what’s problematic is that physicians are still using pagers in 2022.

Health care systems are gradually replacing these archaic approaches with digital technology. In the last few years, many health care practices have adopted new workflow management technology designed to eradicate miscommunication and improve patient care. This technology streamlines tasks and enables faster, more efficient communication between departments, and with patients. Digitization can help remove hurdles such as paperwork and delayed communication, but ineffective or improper use of health care technology also poses a risk to patient outcomes. All the tech in the world isn’t worth a dime unless the technology is correctly designed and executed, and the users are properly trained.

There also still seems to be a hesitancy about adopting more tech-driven communication channels in some health care practices. This usually stems from concerns about compliance and the costly risk of failing to adhere to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA dictates that health care technology should include multiple security features to protect personally identifiable information (PII).

However, data breaches due to hackers or human error do happen. In one recent example, a ransomware attack breached 3 million patient data records. So, it’s understandable that some physicians would rather stick to pen and paper.

Avoiding miscommunications

Implementing systems and streamlining processes to improve communication doesn’t have to be difficult. Eradicating out-of-date legacy systems for digital communication is the quickest way to achieve this.

When considering internal communication channels, simple improvements such as the adoption of live chat options between staff members can go a long way. In fact, the popular business tool Slack now offers services that support HIPAA-compliant messaging and document sharing. Other platforms like MedChat are even specifically designed for medical settings. Access to instant messaging and notifications is a great way to stay on top of communication channels between medical staff.

The full benefits of live chat options come through API technology, which stands for Application Programming Interface. These software protocols essentially bridge and connect two independent platforms, helping them automate messaging and improve interoperability. For example, if one practice uses Slack and another uses Microsoft Teams, an API would allow those teams to communicate together despite using separate systems.

This level of improved communication creates time savings, improved referral systems, and better patient outcomes. For example, say a patient needs to see a specialist who is only available at a different clinic. Medical staff could schedule an appointment in the organization’s CRM and an API could automatically alert the specialist over Slack. The API could then add the patient’s details to the specialist’s digital calendar. That’s two communication platforms operating together and maintaining HIPAA compliance throughout.

By now, pagers should also really be a thing reserved for ‘90s medical sitcoms. The Internet of Things (IoT) and the use of smartphones are enabling more immediate communication between practitioners and allowing better coordination among teams. For example, physicians can use a smartphone to submit a pharmacy order that will be ready for patients to collect later in the visit. There are even reports of a promising new app that turns a smartphone into a stethoscope, which is a harbinger of exciting times in the continued integration of IoT systems into health care practices.

How AI can help

In addition to upgrading legacy systems, health specialists should also cast their attention toward the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI). This technology can automate processes and speed up communications such as delivering appointment reminders. Within the health care market, AI is predicted to experience rapid growth, with an uptick in compound annual growth rate of 47% from 2021 to 2027. This suggests the innovation has only just begun.

So far, AI’s strongpoints are big data analytics and the ability to help doctors make strategic decisions based on electronic health record (EHR) analysis. However, the potential of health care AI could dramatically improve patient outcomes.

Take voice AI, for example. This technology can transcribe spoken words into text, and also enter information straight into digital records. So, instead of physicians taking notes throughout a patient consultation, doctors could focus on ensuring meaningful conversations take place as they rely on AI to support their data entry.

Another area where AI can be a boon is in unstructured medical data, which make up 80% of hospital records. AI can scan and read handwritten notes from previous consultations and pull out data, say about a previous prescription, and present it to the physician. This drives down costs while helping medical staff gain better oversight of health trends.

Looking ahead

Too often, health care practices are hesitant to make the leap in updating their communication channels in fear of jeopardizing systems that “work.” However, the longer that medical professionals delay tech innovation within their communication channels, the more difficult it’ll be further down the line. The end goal should always be to improve patient experiences and health outcomes. The key to achieving this goal lies in technology.