Career Development November 4, 2021

By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor

3 Best Practices for Communicating with a Patient's Family

Successful patient communication is essential to achieving the best outcomes, and it often goes hand-in-hand with communicating effectively with the patient’s family. Nurses play an integral role in the success of each and every interaction.

Many hospitals, medical centers, doctor’s offices and outpatient clinics have eased COVID restrictions and are allowing family members and caregivers to be present where they weren’t allowed a few months ago. This highlights the importance of caregiver communication to ensure better adherence to care plans, medication management and more.

"Research shows that quality, collaborative communication results in increased patient satisfaction, treatment adherence, increased practitioner job satisfaction and, most important, care to patients," according to guidelines released by the State of Washington, Medical Quality Assurance Commission.

Read also: 7 Ways to Improve Communication with Patients

3 keys to optimize caregiver communication

The following outlines three key ways nurses and other clinicians can improve communication with a patients’ family and/or caregivers:

1. Slow down and lend an ear

All successful communication starts with listening. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has a comprehensive Patient and Family Engagement module as part of the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program (CUSP) Toolkit. This toolkit offers concrete action items that clinicians can incorporate to drive best practices across the communication spectrum.

“Staff should ask about and listen to the patient and family's needs and concerns,” according to the module. The patient and family module also provides the following tips:

  • Use open-ended questions (that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”);
  • Try to see the experience through the patient's eyes;
  • Listen to, respect, and act on what the patient and family say;
  • Help the patient and family articulate their concerns; and
  • Enlist the help of a translator for the patient or family member when necessary.

2. Engage and include the caregiver

When interacting with a family member or other caregiver, nurses can improve communication by speaking directly to both parties. If the patient is unable to respond or the caregiver is acting as his or her advocate, this becomes even more critical for successful communication.

Including the caregiver is an important component of patient-centered and family-centered care, and helps create an environment where everyone works together to improve the quality and safety of healthcare.

Engaging the caregiver includes best practices such as asking if they have any questions or concerns, expressing empathy (especially important with critically ill or hospice patients), speaking slowly, making eye contact, using plain language, and modeling receptive and open body language. Including the patient and caregiver as partners in the healthcare team also helps reduce the risk of adverse events.

3. Help educate and inform

Medical terminology can be confusing, and nurses are often tasked with ensuring the patient and other applicable parties understand the information that is being explained to them. 

The CUSP toolkit recommends that staff should help the patient and family understand the diagnosis, condition, and next steps. They note that it is important to provide timely and complete information, use plain language, and invite the patient or a family member to take notes.

Many nurses also deploy a “teach-back” approach where they have the caregiver relay the pertinent information back to them after they have explained something. This communication technique ensures that the information is fully understood.

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