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Irksome Unspoken Messages in Patient-Staff Interactions

By Kathy, Senior Marketing Strategist

doctor staff with heartAll healthcare marketing and communications professionals are well acquainted with the basic elements of the Communications Cycle. In essence:

  • the sender expresses a message
  • the recipient receives and interprets the message
  • feedback to the sender reflects understanding (or misunderstanding)

While it all sounds elementary, we know from experience that the communications process is always far more complicated and not always verbal. And as we dig deeper into patient-staff encounters in medical practices for training, we occasionally discover some alarming message interpretations.

If actions were words, sometimes here’s what’s the patient might “hear”

Fortunately, the following irksome examples are fairly rare and usually unintended, but they do happen. It’s important to stress that we’ve never heard these words spoken, but they dramatize how patients can interpret the actions and attitudes in encounters with staff members.

Not being greeted promptly upon arrival: “I can see you standing there, but if I stare really hard at this chart, I can avoid dealing with you for at least another few minutes.”

You are a chart, not a person: “Address you by name? I won’t try to remember who you are anyway.”

Just waiting in line: “Be with you in a minute, hon. I’m busy telling my co-worker about last night’s American Idol.”

Don’t ask: “Of course that’s a stupid question. Everyone knows the restroom is upstairs, down the hall and around the corner.”

Patients are an interruption: “Even if my clock is a little fast, I think you are late for your appointment and you don’t have your insurance card in your hand.”

Get-it-right sign language: “What’s with all the ‘riot act’ signs at the check-in and check-out desk? Heaven knows I’ve nearly given up trying to train all you people about how we do things in this office.”

Clock watching: “Your appointment isn’t really until 3:00 PM, but we told you to be here early for all the forms. Who knows, someday we might not be running 30 minutes behind.”

A paperless office would be best: “Are you kidding? Nobody has time to read the chart. I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions which you already answered on those forms.”

In staff training, it’s important to understand how the patient can assign unintended meaning to interactions. Sometimes it’s not the words that you say, but what the patient “hears” from body language, actions, attitudes or distracted focus.

For related reading, see: Staff Training Lesson: Don’t Let Efficiency Erode Patient Experience and Patient Satisfaction: What’s Your Plan for Leadership, Culture and Training?

Kathy Gaughran

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