Insights From Our Editors

Words Matter: How to Communicate Exactly What You Mean to Patients, Staff & Others

By Mark Wright, OD, FCOVD,
and Carole Burns, OD, FCOVD

April 14, 2021

Communication is an integral part of succeeding as an optometrist and practice owner. Your patients must be able to understand why you prescribed specific products and services, your staff must understand why you want them to follow work protocols and business contacts must understand what you want from them, and what you can do for them. Here is how to choose words in a way that will allow you to communicate powerfully.

Words matter. How to phrase something can mean the difference between a patient getting the care you prescribe or not. How things are said can draw patients toward you emotionally or push them away.

USING “YES” WORDS
Professional VisionCare in Westerville, Ohio, uses the following chart in its employee training to help team members communicate effectively with all patients.

ACTION STEP: What words are being used in your practice?

DELIVERING BAD NEWS
Eventually, we will all have to deliver bad news to patients. Explaining macular degeneration or advanced glaucoma outcomes necessitates a sensitive and thoughtful approach. Sometimes patients tell us bad news (e.g.: loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis from another provider, financial loss). Common responses by healthcare providers when a patient expresses bad news is: “I’m sorry” or “I understand.” Patients sometimes feel that you are being disingenuous when you say “I’m sorry.” Often the patient feels that you do not understand their situation. Maybe you don’t. A better response is: “I wish things were different.” This statement raises the emotional connection between provider and patient.

Here is a protocol that can be used to communicate any important information to patients. This six-step protocol comes from How to Break Bad News: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Buckman. (Follow these three end-notes for other helpful references in this area.i, ii, iii)

Buckman and his colleagues developed a mnemonic, SPIKES, to help you remember this approach.

The first three steps of SPIKES is preparing you to share information. The last three steps are guiding you to carefully manage the delivery of information.

Here are three more important things to remember when talking to patients:
1) Deliver information to patients clearly, succinctly and without using jargon.
2) Once facts are delivered, stop talking. Permit the patient to absorb and react to what you explained.
3) Only after the patient settles after reacting to the news you’ve delivered, move to planning next steps and follow-up

ACTION STEP: Take this week to review how you and your team communicate with patients and strive do it better.

References
i., ii., iii: Baile WF, Buckman R, Lenzi R, Glober G, Beale EA, Kudelka AP. SPIKES-A six-step protocol for delivering bad news: application to the patient with cancer. Oncologist. 2000;5(4):302-11.

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