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How Workplace Miscommunication Hinders Healthcare

Stephen Dean, Co-Founder, Keona Health

Healthcare can be a complex enterprise, involving countless interactions among physicians, nurses, and patients. Ensuring clear and effective communication is a crucial part of the patient care process. Unfortunately, even as increasing digitization removes some of the communication barriers, many obstacles still remain.

Poor communication in a health care setting can have truly dire consequences for patients, resulting in inefficient or sluggish care, misdiagnosis, or additional health complications that lead to readmissions and prolonged care. Beyond that, there are also the financial consequences of miscommunication. According to one study by the Journal of Healthcare Management, U.S. hospitals waste an average of $12 billion annually due to poor communication among care providers.

Therefore, it’s in the best interests of every healthcare organization to understand the full effects of miscommunication, as well as why it happens and what they can do to mitigate the chances of it occurring.

Effects and causes of miscommunication

In the field of healthcare, the most problematic miscommunication failures tend to happen when medical practitioners are not aware of the full range of a patient’s symptoms. For instance, if a patient is admitted for headaches, the medical professionals might discover during treatment that the patient also has heart problems. At this point the patient might be sent to a cardiologist for additional testing. It may turn out that the two issues are related, but if the practitioners aren’t in close contact, this observation can escape their notice, leading to a delayed diagnosis and possibly a worsening health condition for the patient.

Similarly, there can also be miscommunication between the patient and caregiver. Most patients do not have extensive knowledge of medical matters, making it difficult for them to know which symptoms might be significant, and therefore worth reporting to doctors. They also might not fully understand the purpose of the treatments they are being put through.

In a best-case scenario, this kind of miscommunication can result in delays or readmissions that hamper patient satisfaction—which means the patient would be unlikely to seek care with that particular hospital or clinic in the future.

In a worst-case scenario, the patient may suffer severe harm from not adhering to medication recommendations or follow-up instructions, which may lead to adverse outcomes and malpractice allegations.

Lastly, there’s high potential for miscommunication through remote health services. As many of us discovered during the Covid lockdowns, it can be harder during video calls for physicians and nurses to get sufficient information about the patient’s condition and for patients to fully understand their options. Progress toward creating more efficient and effective telehealth services has been made in recent years, but many hospitals and clinics are still operating on older systems that are long overdue for an update.

How to improve communication in healthcare

Miscommunication in healthcare can be caused by a variety of factors, including ineffective policies, workload pressure, poor documentation, or ineffective communication systems. Fortunately, solving these issues doesn’t require drastic restructuring of an organization’s operational procedures.

Below are a few steps hospitals and medical centers can take to address communication challenges:

1. Digitize your communication systems

Many medical organizations still rely on fax machines, pagers, and handwritten notes for transmitting information. These antiquated communication systems are not only slow and inefficient; they also increase the chances of miscommunication. Replacing these outdated methods with computerized systems that allow for instant communication among physicians—and for easy document transfers—can go a long way toward streamlining tasks and improving communication.

That said, health care organizations do need to be careful in choosing a digital communication system that is reliable, easy to use, and, most importantly, highly secure. As mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), all healthcare technology must have multiple security features that  ensure the safety of sensitive patient information. Data breaches are a constant threat that require sophisticated cybersecurity if compliance standards are to be met.

2. Look to AI

Organizations should also investigate possible uses for artificial intelligence (AI). This technology has made great strides in recent years—some software is now capable of transcribing spoken words into text, scanning paper documents for critical information, and providing physicians with practicable advice on treatment through data analysis of a patient’s electronic health record (EHR).

AI software can record physician notes during a patient consultation and automatically transfer that data down to the next specialist in the treatment process. This not only reduces the chances of miscommunication; it also lowers operating costs. Additionally, new uses for AI are constantly being developed, making it highly likely that AI will soon become an established tool in the healthcare industry.

3. Implement additional staff training

To address miscommunication issues among caregivers and patients, supplemental training should be a top priority.

Physicians and nurses need to know how to actively listen to patients. Physicians and nurses need to understand what patients are saying, both verbally and nonverbally, and how to respond with the right tone of voice—and when to involve the patient’s family or friends in the discussion. Better communication leads to better outcomes and a more positive patient experience. Staff who struggle to communicate effectively with patients should be provided with additional coaching and training as needed.

Even when you have a digital communication system in place, managers and team leaders should never forget about the value of face-to-face meetings. Such meetings are critical to establishing effective communication and a positive work environment between healthcare professionals—so make every second count.

Final thoughts

Poor communication in a healthcare setting can result in lost time, wasted money, and, worst of all, poor health outcomes for patients. Fortunately, by embracing technology and improving the communication skills of your staff, you can avoid the worst outcomes of poor communication. It starts with recognizing that there might be a miscommunication problem, and then taking steps to rectify that problem.


AI, artificial intelligence, communications, Keona Health


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