Complex therapeutic relationships thrive on a delicate balance of listening, understanding, and educating. Patients are individuals with different needs and learning styles, making good communication is a medical assistant’s most important skill.
What Is Good Communication?
Communication is how we exchange ideas, but what makes it effective is difficult to define. The general rules are simple, yet there is no universal approach, especially in medicine. As a medical assistant, you’ll work with physically and emotionally vulnerable people from diverse backgrounds, each with a unique perspective.
Communication comes in two forms, verbal and non-verbal. Verbal communication is the use of language to express ideas. Non-verbal communication, or body language, consists of the signals we send through our posture, facial expressions, and gestures. We say more with our bodies than our mouths. The exchange of ideas is a two-way street, so whether a medical assistant is speaking or listening, both matter.
Let’s take a closer look at how medical assistants can communicate best with patients by examining the techniques taught in a vocational school program, beginning with active listening.
The Role of Active Listening
Listening is arguably the hardest part of communicating. We process less than half of what we hear, recalling even less. So, when a patient approaches a medical assistant with a laundry list of symptoms, it’s essential to prioritize them.
A barrage of complaints reflects patients’ limited understanding of health issues and a desire to communicate as many details as possible about what they’re experiencing, but it makes getting to the bottom of their concerns a challenge. The first step is always to listen.
Active listening is a therapeutic technique that approaches communication holistically, examining what patients say in the context of non-verbal cues by:
The most important part of therapeutic communication is a personal connection. If patients believe you’re not interested, they’ll tune out.
Begin with a friendly introduction, making eye contact to let them know they’re the focus of your attention. It inspires their confidence, encouraging them to speak freely. No one wants to share intimate details about their lives with someone they don’t believe is listening.
Healthcare is fast paced, it’s easy for a medical assistant to prioritize tasks over people, reasoning that they, too, benefit the patient. But it’s critical to limit distractions, so you can listen thoughtfully to what patients are saying, evaluating their body language as they speak while minding your own non-verbal cues, patients are keenly aware of distracted staff. The most important message to convey with both words and behavior is, I care.
When patients speak, they expect you to confirm or question what they said by offering feedback. Paraphrasing points periodically by saying, for example, “What I think you’re saying is…” or “I think you mean…” allows patients to clarify their message and moves the conversation forward.
Asking open-ended questions that invite patients to expand on their thoughts instead of giving yes or no answers is a helpful technique. The point is to gather as much information as possible for the physician.
Understanding Body Language
From posture to paralinguistics, people unconsciously evaluate each other at first sight. Medical assistants must mind their body language while discerning what patients are saying through theirs, considering:
Seen before words are spoken, facial expressions are a significant aspect of non-verbal communication. They can support or contradict our words, and the disparity is often where the truth lies. A patient who states they’re relaxed while they’re scowling, for example, is probably anxious. A medical assistant who recognizes that can step in, changing their approach or the environment to help the patient be more relaxed.
Personal space is someone’s bubble, encroaching on it can provoke intense emotional responses from uneasiness to panic. Medically vulnerable people, poked and prodded daily for treatment, can be particularly sensitive about their personal space. Some struggle to keep others at arm’s length while others prefer a sense of intimacy. Older patients or those who’ve been physically abused may need more distance. Children as well as people from other countries, such as South America, may prefer closer personal contact. Working with patients who have different expectations makes it especially important for medical assistants to read non-verbal cues.
Paralinguistics refers to the non-language component of verbal communication, such as volume, tone, rate, and pitch. The old saying, “It’s not what you say but how you say it,” is true. Words convey a message, while paralinguistics gives them impact.
Making eye contact has unique personal, cultural, and generational implications. Older patients expect it while younger patients may be intimidated by it. Seen as a sign of respect to some and superiority by others, it pays to know the age, habits, practices, and cultural background of your patients. Approach each situation individually.
Posture communicates what words sometimes can’t. Among animals, for example, an arched backed is a defensive move designed to scare predators. Humans, too, use posture to make a point, it’s subtle but noticeable. A patient with crossed arms, for example, may be expecting a confrontation. Slouching can indicate disinterest or resignation. Non-verbal cues should be interpreted as part of the big picture.
Appearance is a controversial topic. In the service industry, how patients perceive you matters. Doctor’s offices, for example, have dress codes for team members in keeping with patients’ expectations. Medical assistants are asked to maintain a professional appearance to avoid distractions.
Overcoming Communication Barriers
Medical assistants can be better communicators by recognizing these barriers, common in healthcare settings:
It’s common for patients to have hearing or visual impairments. Some are upfront about it while others hide that they can’t see or hear instructions. Medical assistants should assess for sensory barriers early in their communications with patients, so they can adapt communication methods accordingly.
Today’s medical assistants will increasingly encounter patients who don’t speak their language. Most healthcare facilities are required by law to offer translation services. Recognizing that patients who don’t speak the same language as their caregivers have a voice only through an interpreter, every effort should be made to facilitate translation while compensating with positive body language.
A million-plus people in the US can’t read. Some are functionally literate, meaning they have basic reading skills but won’t understand complex written material. Assessing a patient’s literacy is a critical component of education.
The term “generation gap” describes the difference in how people of different ages communicate with each other. If you go outside the norms, communication can hit a roadblock. A senior, for example, expects to be addressed by title and surname until they give you permission to use their first name. Young adults are more comfortable on a first-name basis.
Avoiding Communication Traps
These communication traps can ruin a therapeutic relationship and should be avoided.
Stereotypes are assumptions about people based on group characteristics, their age, race, religion, gender, and nationality. It’s a dangerous communication trap that can lead to poor medical decisions.
Negative Body Language
Medical assistants know when a patient is fearful, but patients can also tell when a team member is preoccupied or disinterested. It’s not always easy to appear attentive, but negative body language is unprofessional.
Needing to Be Right
Conversations with patients can unwittingly turn into debates. But therapeutic communications require strict professional boundaries, so even if a medical assistant disagrees with a patient’s choice, they need to respect the patient’s autonomy. In healthcare, patients are always in the driver’s seat.
Not Establishing Rapport
Patients pay for medical advice, so breaking the ice may seem like an unnecessary step in communication. But people are often hesitant to discuss physical and emotional symptoms with complete strangers and need to feel at ease with staff before they’re comfortable divulging details.
The good news for medical assistants is that although deeper therapeutic relationships take time to establish, basic rapport can be achieved quickly with a smile and attentiveness.
Some patients have difficulty communicating. The burden is on trained medical professionals to use their skills to draw patients into a conversation. Avoid the need to fill in uncomfortable silences with chit-chat. Ask the right questions, and let the patient take it from there.
Asking the Wrong Questions
Asking the right questions invites patients to speak. Asking “Does your leg hurt?” for example, requires only a yes or no answer and effectively shuts down dialogue.
A medical assistant learns more by asking open-ended questions that prompt meaningful responses. Asking “Does your leg keep you from doing things around the house?” encourages patients to discuss not only their pain but also how it impacts their daily lives, giving medical professionals greater insight into the services a patient may need.
There’s a time and place for every discussion, so while patients can wait weeks for an appointment with their doctor, some topics aren’t appropriate at all visits. Asking a patient if they want a flu shot after they’ve been told they have cancer, for example, may seem crass. A medical assistant needs to read situations with empathy, putting themselves in the patient’s shoes.
“A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” is more than an adage, it’s good advice. It doesn’t mean sugar-coating reality or lying to patients about a prognosis. It simply means acknowledging small victories, crediting patients for their efforts where it’s due.
Among the many skills a medical assistant needs, good communication is the most vital, it’s the foundation of therapeutic and workplace relationships. But good communicators are born; they’re made with the right blend of training and experience. A vocational school medical assisting program will help you prepare, but only practice makes perfect.
Did learning about the importance of communication in medical assisting interest you? Gwinnett Colleges & Institute offers medical assisting courses to gain essential skills and training. The core curriculum focuses on the medical assisting skills and training you will need to seek entry-level employment in physicians’ offices, clinics, hospitals, and other medical settings needing the services of associates trained in both front and back office medical assisting skills. These medical assisting courses will be the first step in starting a rewarding career.
Contact us to learn more about how you can become a medical assistant today.