How Patient Centred Communication Can Improve Healthcare

Communication is a challenging word. It encompasses such a wide range of study, theory, practice, and applies to almost every moment of our lives.

In broad terms, successful communication is the transmission of a specific message, using a particular medium, in a way that is clearly understood by the intended recipient. It’s a critical component of life and business, and it’s very easy to get it wrong.

Especially with public sector communications, and particularly in healthcare.

What is patient centred communication?
In recent years, Ontario has been moving in a new direction with the healthcare system, putting into place a focus on “patient centred care.” More than policy changes, the program put into place a shift to the perspective of patients. Previously, patients were seen as patients to be healed, not people to be helped—a subtle difference. The changes place patients in a different position: as the audience, the intended recipients. As “clients” deserving of a high quality service.

Improving the quality of care that people receive is an important part of reducing the strain on our provincial health care system. Ontario’s 2012 action plan outlines ways that improving the quality of healthcare can reduce hospital visits, wait times, and even reduce financial burdens. So how does communication fit into this new model?

The right care, the right time, the right place.

  • Who do I see?
  • When can I see them?
  • Where do I go?

Those three questions could be life and death. Healthcare faces unique challenges in communicating with the public, in that messages are often being delivered during emotional and physical stress, and with critical timelines. The intended recipients are also likely to be impaired in some way.

Speak for your audience, not at them.
Even in the absence of an emergency situation, many patients are likely to face barriers when interpreting healthcare communications. Whether they are relying on a friend, family member, a screen reader or other technical assistance, patients are often gaining information second hand. In order to communicate with patients and their families effectively, they don’t just need to be talked to, they need to be advocated for.

The simplest way of communicating with healthcare audiences is to use empathy in all stages of your project:

  • Think about your audience; place yourself in their shoes.
  • What do they need to know, when do they need to know it?
  • Do they have any barriers in terms of impairment or access in general?

In healthcare it isn’t just about communicating a message, it is truly about helping people.

Simple measures: providing an accessible first point of contact
Doctors have already begun to make considerable efforts to interact with their patients in a sensitive and clear manner. But verbal communication is just one of many ways that information is given to the public. Additionally, Doctors aren’t usually the first experience someone has with the healthcare industry. It can take a long time before a patient gets to that all-important personal interaction. More often than not a patient will need to rely on various communications mediums such as websites, in-building signage, pamphlets and others in order to reach their appointments.

There are several simple ways that non-verbal communications can be improved. For example:

  • Larger font sizes, with high contrast in print materials.
  • Clear instructions in the imperative mood.
  • Screen reader compatible web content, with strong consideration of AODA guidelines
  • Signage that is clear, legible and visible in the building
  • Writing to no higher than grade seven level, especially in urban areas with many new Canadians

Saving lives, and administrative costs
It’s a simple fact of reducing human error. Once they’re inside a building, if someone can easily see your signs, they’re less likely to need to ask someone where to go. The more accessible your website is, the less people will need to call. The more informative your print collateral, the less questions will be asked. These simple changes can significantly reduce administrative burdens, and shorten the time it takes for a patient to receive the care they urgently need.

Cohesion across mediums
In 2015, there are a great many points of access for the public to receive information about healthcare. The problem is keeping up. The expected experience of information consumption is always shifting, and in the rush to keep present in the changing mobile and social media landscape it can be easy to muddle messages.

Print, email, web, social media … Does all of your information material have a clear message that is cohesive from one medium to the next? Research by Google shows that people consuming information are not only mobile more than ever, but that they often complete a single task over multiple devices. Consistency of information from one screen size to another: PC, mobile, tablet, is becoming an expected user experience. Furthermore, people are spending more time on their phones than on their computers. Even when they’re watching TV, they’re on their phones. Google’s recommendation is clear: you need clear messages that cross devices in order to reach users.

Preventative healthcare: young people, apps, and hashtags
A mobile focus isn’t as useful for an aging population, but it is a serious consideration in preventative healthcare. Communicating with young people about their health is a great way of reducing future burdens on the system. That’s where the importance of design for the internet, and for mobile comes in. But there are quite a few traps to avoid.

When we’re talking about young people, it’s tempting to focus on apps. They’re always using apps on their phones, so you need an app, right?

Not necessarily.

If you look at the statistics, people’s time on their phones is mostly split between two different types of apps: games and social media. Health and fitness apps occupy a depressing 1% of their attention. Developing an app forces the user to come to you, and in the case of young people the chances are they’re not looking for you in the first place.

Engage them where they are
A social media presence that connects with a mobile compatible website is the best way to connect with young people about their healthcare concerns. If you’re looking to spread awareness about subjects such as sexual health or healthy lifestyles, finding ways to get your message trending on social media is the best way to do it. Create messages that appear in the apps that people are already using. Don’t waste your budget on creating your own app, in 99% of cases no one wants it. Take that budget and create a great microsite or targeted social media campaign, it’ll be a lot more effective.

People want to know where to go and what to do.

Clear communication has the potential to reduce the load on emergency rooms, prevent unnecessary repeat visits to the hospital, and even save lives. The Ontario provincial government has already taken steps to move healthcare into the home, but to stop people from popping back up at the hospital we need to give them the tools to understand their own conditions and healthcare needs. Communicate with empathy, be clear with your message, and make sure to talk with people where they are.

For any questions related to patient-centred communications please contact me at

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