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Universal Language Shapes the Patient Experience

Posted by Kristin Baird on June 2nd, 2016 • No Comments »

During focus groups, I often ask patients what makes them feel confident in a health care organization or provider. It’s no surprise to me that their responses have little to do with credentials, and a lot to do with behaviors, and statements made by staff and providers.

Patients usually tell me that they want to feel respected, valued, informed and included in decisions about their care. They also say they want to feel cared about, and confident in each person on the team. The things that instill confidence usually come down to how well staff and physicians communicate with the patient, both verbally and non-verbally.

I once had emergency surgery in a foreign country. I was at a huge disadvantage because the hospital staff all spoke Spanish. I, on the other hand speak very little Spanish.  The staff was frustrated with me because I didn’t understand them. I was frustrated with them because they didn’t understand me. But what I could understand very clearly was their non-verbal communication. Did they appear confident and competent? Did they show empathy? Did they try to help me feel cared for?

It dawned on me after that experience that our patients often feel like I did. They don’t speak the healthcare language, and may not know the terminology we commonly use. But they do understand nonverbal communication. They react to our behaviors. They form opinions about how competent and caring we are by how we behave.

In my case, I got a pretty good idea about the nurse’s competence and confidence by her behaviors. After sticking me five times in an attempt to start an IV, the nurse stopped, made the sign of the cross and said, “In the name of the lord,” prior to sticking me for the sixth time. This did little to reassure me, and spoke volumes about her level of confidence. Believe me, no one wants to be on the receiving end of the needle without feeling confident in the needle-wielding nurse.

Not once during my surgery, or overnight stay in the hospital, did anyone sit by my side, hold my hand or touch me to offer reassurance or comfort. Their interactions were strictly business, and their behaviors indicated that they had a job to do – and that job was to deliver medical services. Nothing else.

The things that can erode confidence are not necessarily the big things. They are usually comments or behaviors that leave the patient wondering if you really know anything about them, or their condition, and if you care.  I don’t know anyone who looks forward to having an IV placed. So imagine a nurse who comments, “You have really lousy veins.” Read: “I will be sticking you several times.” Or the nurse who puts the tourniquet on your arm, and says, “Oops, I don’t have my swabs or tape. I’ll be right back.” This type of comment leaves the patient wondering if you are prepared for other aspects of his care.

The real takeaway is that everything the patient hears, sees, smells and touches during their encounters, need to build trust and confidence in the competence of the team. The result is greater loyalty, improved compliance, positive word-of-mouth, and a healthy bottom line. It’s a win-win.

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Baird Consulting


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