The problem of poor communication in health care

Research has shown that communication problems are at the root of many medical errors, including those that have resulted in patient deaths.

The thought of a doctor, nurse or other health care provider in Florida making a mistake that leaves a person injured or that may even cost them their life is certainly the last thing they want to think about when they seek care. However, this is unfortunately something that happens more often than many people would like to consider.

Research has been looking at the problems associated with medical errors and has highlighted that one of the factors associated with many cases has been poor communication.

What type of communication problems occur?

According to research reported by CRICO Strategies in which more than 23,000 medical error cases were evaluated, over one-third involved communication problems. Of these, 12 percent of cases involved problems in communication between patients and medical professionals as well as between medical professionals.

Miscommunication between health care providers was recorded in 57 percent of cases and communication between patients and providers was noted in 55 percent of cases.

Do people really die from communication mistakes?

In the study, it was found that approximately 1,700 patients died as a result of a communication error.

In addition, other research conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that 70 percent of deaths to patients involve some sort of communication mistake made during the handoff of the patient from one provider to another.

Where do communication errors happen?

The CRICO report found a similar number of errors in outpatient and inpatient settings and a smaller amount in emergency rooms.

Other information from the University of California, San Francisco shows that communication errors contributed to more than 25 percent of readmissions to hospitals.

What can be done to improve your communication with your doctor?

While effective and clear patient-doctor communication is your medical provider's responsibility, there are many ways you can improve the effectiveness of this dialog, thereby improving your chances of proper medical care:

  • Do not just answer with a "yes" or "no." Elaborate on your answers, especially if the subject is an area of concern.
  • Bring an advocate. In important medical appointments or hospitalizations, bring a friend or relative to help you communicate with medical personnel when you are stressed or in pain, or when the reason for the visit is confusing or complex. This person can listen to all dialog going on around you and with you, and ask questions and take notes. He or she can ask questions when you may not be in a condition to think of them.
  • Never say you understand if you do not. It is your right to ask questions and for clarification, especially if you are making major treatment decisions. Ask about side effects, risks and other options.
  • Listen carefully. Try to concentrate on the dialog with your physician, nurse or other medical staff.
  • If something does not feel right or does not seem consistent with what your doctor said would happen, speak up.
  • In a hospital setting, a patient advocate or social worker on staff may be able to step in to help you, especially if it feels like tension or conflict between you and the provider has developed.
  • As the physician to explain medical terms you do not understand. Restate what you think the doctor is saying to confirm you got it right.
  • Do not assume the medical provider knows all of your symptoms. Speak up and be thorough.
  • Ask "why" and "why not."
  • If the doctor or nurse says something that suggests they do not understand your condition or the agreed-upon treatment, speak up.
  • Ask for a recap or summary at the end of a conversation to confirm you are all on the same page.
  • If you get home and are unsure about something, call. Ask to speak with the nurse on call or who communicates with your doctor.
  • Point out conflicting information you may have received and ask for clarification.
  • If you are seeing a new provider or specialist, be sure your earlier records have been sent, reviewed and understood.

While the medical community continues to find ways to address the problem of poor communication among its workers, patients in Florida need and deserve help. Talking with an attorney about a potential error is always recommended and should be done as soon as an error is suspected.

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