The importance of being an effective communicator

Skilled communication with your patients, especially those with serious conditions, is essential to ensuring that your treatment strategy aligns with their wishes and betters their quality of life. However, cardiologists often don’t receive any sort of formal training, despite research suggesting that communication skills can be learned.

Physicians can sometimes struggle to discuss treatment goals, share poor news, explain prognoses, and acknowledge patients’ emotional needs. As a result, patients can miss out on important information about their condition and their care options. Cardiologists and the teams that support them can take measures to improve patient outcomes by addressing this gap in their training.

Preparing for the future

Most patients with a serious condition such as heart failure prefer comprehensive, honest information about what to expect and how to plan ahead. With appropriate communication skills, cardiologists and their teams can help patients and their caregivers understand the difficult path that lies ahead and create the best possible treatment plan to manage their condition.

Patients living with a disease like heart failure face a condition that can change rapidly and a laundry list of symptoms that are tough to manage. They must often make difficult treatment decisions as their condition progresses, including whether or not to undergo costly, invasive procedures. And older patients with heart failure are more likely to have other conditions like diabetes or chronic kidney disease that can complicate symptoms, prognosis and treatment decisions. By adequately discussing values and goals with your patients and their caregivers, you can be sure that all treatment decisions match up with their wishes and their personal situation.

These discussions can answer questions about what symptoms to expect and how to manage them day in and day out to ensure the best possible quality of life. They can also encourage conversation about more invasive treatment options and whether or not they would be beneficial. Additionally, these discussions can prepare patients and their caregivers for the difficult decisions to be made during tough situations that will likely arise. Perhaps the most important discussion to have with your patient is one regarding what you, as their physician, can help them achieve. They may want to attend a grandchild’s wedding or enjoy old hobbies outside without feeling out of breath. It is important to discuss ways to make those goals happen and how to preserve their quality of life as their condition worsens.

Limiting unnecessary hospitalizations

One of the most important things a cardiologist should communicate with their patients is what symptoms require hospitalization and what symptoms don’t. By making them aware that a sudden problem could occur, physicians can help to keep them out of the hospital as much as possible, often to the patients’ liking.

Hospital systems and insurance companies have an interest here, too, of course. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a review of 1,000 cases across 12 academic medical centers found that 26.9% of readmissions are preventable. A majority of these instances were caused by issues stemming from ineffective communication such as “failure to relay important information to outpatient health care professionals,” and “patient lack of awareness of whom to contact after discharge.”

Overall, effective communication between you, your team, your patients, and their caregivers can help to reduce hospital readmissions. Better yet, it will improve the level of care your patients receive, as well as their quality of life, and it can provide you with some much-needed relief. For suggestions on how to be a better communicator, check out these 5 tips from Dr. Suneel Dhand, an internal medicine physician, and author.