Effective strategies for communicating effectively with patients

Introduction: The Critical Role of Patient Education in Healthcare

Communicating effectively with patients plays a pivotal role in patient education. Through clear explanations, active listening, visual aids, and other best practices, clinicians can provide patients with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions. Patients who understand their conditions, treatment options, and post-discharge instructions experience better recovery, adherence to treatment plans, and overall wellbeing.

This article explores proven strategies and techniques to optimize patient education through excellent healthcare communication. By applying evidence-based approaches, clinicians can ensure patients fully comprehend their health situation and next steps. When patients are engaged partners in their care, the benefits extend beyond the individual to create a more efficient and effective healthcare system overall.

Barriers to Effective Communication

To ensure communication is effective, it is important to understand some of the barriers to communication because they can prevent effective communication.  The list of barriers is long, but here are some of the more common ones:

Medical Jargon – The heavy use of complex medical language and acronyms by clinicians can make it difficult for patients to understand their conditions and treatment options.

           Examples:  https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-app/nhs-app-help-and-support/health-records-in-the-nhs-app/abbreviations-commonly-found-in-medical-records/

Patients may (and often do) hesitate to ask for clarification, leading to confusion and non-compliance. Clinicians should aim to explain medical terms in plain language.

Cultural Differences – Variations in cultural backgrounds, beliefs, and communication styles between patients and clinicians can hinder mutual understanding. Clinicians should aim for cultural competence by being sensitive to patients’ cultures and adapting their communication approach.

Low Health Literacy – Many patients have limited ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate decisions. Clinicians should avoid making assumptions and use clear, focused communication with confirmations of patient comprehension.

Assumptions – Clinicians may mistakenly assume a patient’s knowledge, literacy level, or ability to recall instructions. Making assumptions can lead to ineffective communication. Clinicians should directly verify a patient’s understanding.

Time Constraints – Brief consultation times can limit effective clinician-patient communication. Clinicians should prioritize clear communication within time limits or schedule longer visits when needed.

Overcoming barriers is key for clinicians to effectively educate patients through quality healthcare communication.

Active Listening

One of the most important strategies for educating patients is active listening. This involves giving patients your full attention and engaging with what they are saying. Active listening builds trust between the clinician and patient, leading to more open and honest communication.

When clinicians actively listen, they are able to better understand the patient’s situation, perspective, and concerns. This allows the clinician to provide information and education that is tailored to the patient’s needs. Patients are more likely to engage with and retain information that is relevant to their circumstances.

There are several techniques clinicians can use to actively listen:

  • Maintain eye contact and use minimal prompts such as nodding or uttering words or noises to show engagement.

  • Refrain from interrupting the patient. Allow them time to fully explain their concerns before responding.  Utilise silence and pauses.

  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage elaboration. Questions that start with “how” or “what” elicit more details.

  • Summarise what the patient said to confirm understanding. Ask clarifying questions if needed.

  • Avoid distractions and focus entirely on the conversation. Eliminate multitasking.

  • Educated guesses help you explore what a patient means, for example ‘do you think you are a burden on your family, is that right?

  • Empathy shows that you are trying to understand things from the other person’s perspective; it sounds difficult to talk about this….

Active listening strengthens the clinician-patient relationship, which has been shown to improve health outcomes. Patients who feel heard by their clinicians are more likely to honestly disclose information and adhere to treatment plans. They also report higher satisfaction with their care.

By educating clinicians on active listening techniques, healthcare organizations can enhance patient engagement and empower patients to take an active role in their health. The benefits of active listening underscore why effective communication should be a priority across all healthcare settings.

Teach Back Method

The teach back method is an effective strategy to ensure patients comprehend the health information communicated by their providers. With the teach back method, the provider clearly explains a concept, treatment plan, or medical instructions to the patient. Then, the provider asks the patient to explain or demonstrate back what was just communicated, in their own words.

For example, after explaining a new medication regimen, the provider may say: “I want to make sure I explained everything clearly. Can you please explain back to me how and when you will take this medication?” This closing the loop technique ensures the patient properly understands the information. If there are any inaccuracies in the patient’s understanding, the provider can immediately clarify and re-explain any confusing parts.

Other examples of using teach back include asking patients to explain in their own words:

  • How to use a medical device or self-administer treatment
  • Details of an upcoming procedure or surgery
  • Lifestyle or diet changes to manage a chronic condition
  • Signs and symptoms to monitor and report

Implementing the teach back method empowers patients to be active participants in their care. It shows patients that their provider cares about their comprehension. Teach back improves patient satisfaction, engagement, adherence, and outcomes.

This is an important technique to use because from our own research experience patients frequently leave clinical consultations, not fully understanding what has been said and what has been agreed upon.

Visual Aids

Visual aids like diagrams, illustrations, infographics, and videos can be powerful tools for educating patients. Seeing something helps reinforce learning and memory. Visuals make complex topics easier to understand by breaking down information into more digestible formats.

Infographics and illustrations provide visual overviews of conditions, procedures, anatomy, medications, side effects, and more. These graphics capture attention, reduce cognitive load, and improve comprehension and recall. Patients are able to quickly grasp key takeaways that may get lost in dense text.

Videos can demonstrate something in a dynamic, step-by-step way. Watching a video of how to use an asthma inhaler, for example, is more effective than reading instructions. Videos bring topics to life through motion and sound.

During appointments, drawings and diagrams help focus the discussion. Simple sketches illustrate affected anatomy and clarify treatment plans. Annotated diagrams show exactly where a health issue is located. Detailed illustrations demonstrate how procedures work.

      Example: One patient once said to me that having seen a crude drawing of his oesophagus (food pipe to the stomach) he now                                                understood why he was having difficulty swallowing his food.

Visual aids empower patients to better understand health topics. Clinicians should take advantage of graphics whenever possible. Thoughtfully designed visuals lead to improved patient education and outcomes.

Health Literacy

Health literacy refers to a patient’s ability to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. It is a critical component of effective healthcare communication and patient education. Patients with inadequate health literacy often struggle to navigate the healthcare system, manage chronic conditions, and understand treatment instructions. Well to be fair, anyone who does not use the healthcare system very often can find health literacy a problem. This can lead to poor health outcomes and higher healthcare costs.

There are several reasons health literacy is so important:

  • Low health literacy is associated with more hospitalizations and greater use of emergency care. Individuals with low health literacy are less likely to use preventive services and more likely to skip important diagnostic tests like mammograms or bowel tests.

  • Patients with low health literacy have a poorer ability to take medications properly and interpret medication labels and health messages. This could lead to improper medication dosing and dangerous medication interactions.

  • Lower health literacy is linked to poorer overall health status and higher rates of chronic illness. Patients with inadequate health literacy have less knowledge of their medical conditions and treatments.

  • Individuals with limited health literacy report decreased wellbeing and lower satisfaction with healthcare. They are less likely to ask clarifying questions to their doctors.

Healthcare professionals should keep health literacy in mind when educating patients. Using plain, non-medical language and confirming comprehension through teach-back are evidence-based approaches. Providing appropriate visual aids like diagrams, illustrations, and videos is also key. Addressing health literacy empowers patients to become active participants in their health.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is vital for effective healthcare communication. Patients come from diverse cultural backgrounds and clinicians must be sensitive to these differences. Here are some strategies for culturally competent communication:

  • Avoid assumptions. Don’t assume a patient’s cultural beliefs or health practices. Ask open-ended questions to understand the patient’s perspectives.

  • Use plain language interpreters. When needed, provide professional interpreters during consultations. Avoid using family members who may filter information or cause them distress.

  • Explain the importance of treatments. Take time to explain why you recommend certain treatments and how they work. This builds trust and understanding.

  • Learn basic phrases. Learn greeting phrases in your patient’s language to help build rapport. Even small efforts show you care.

  • Use visual aids. Use diagrams, models, drawings or other visual aids to improve understanding across language and cultural barriers.

  • Check for understanding. Ask patients to explain or demonstrate what they need to do to follow treatment plans. This verifies comprehension.

  • Make reasonable accommodations. Accommodate cultural practices around modesty, dietary restrictions, healthcare beliefs, etc. when possible.

  • Partner with community organizations. Connect with local cultural groups to better understand the community you serve.

With cultural competence, clinicians can deliver quality care that fits the patient’s cultural health beliefs and practices. Simple efforts to understand patients’ perspectives and language needs go a long way in building trust and enhancing communication.

Shared Decision Making: Improving Engagement through Collaboration

Shared decision making (SDM) is a collaborative process between patients and clinicians that empowers patients to be active participants in their own care. Rather than a one-way transfer of information from clinician to patient, SDM involves two-way communication and information sharing to reach optimal healthcare decisions.

The key principles of SDM include:

  • Engaging the patient by finding out what matters most to them and what outcomes they hope for. This allows care plans to align with patient values, preferences, and priorities.

  • Providing evidence-based information about options, outcomes, probabilities, and scientific uncertainties. Clinicians should explain the benefits, harms, alternatives, and risks in an objective, balanced manner.

  • Collaborating on deliberation and decision making. The clinician and patient discuss preferences, weigh options against evidence, and come to a joint decision. Neither side makes decisions unilaterally.

Research shows SDM leads to more informed and engaged patients. Patients report greater knowledge, more confidence in decisions, improved communication with clinicians, and higher satisfaction levels. SDM also leads to improved health outcomes and quality of life.

To implement SDM, clinicians can:

  • Introduce options and provide tailored education and materials
  • Encourage patients to ask questions, express concerns, and articulate goals
  • Make recommendations while remaining open to patient preferences
  • Check patient understanding throughout the process

Using SDM builds trust, bridges power differentials, and puts patients in the driver’s seat of their own care. This collaboration enables patients to make truly informed decisions that align with their needs and values.

One key thing we learned in a research project was to ask patients how involved they want to be in decision making.  Don’t just give them information and tell them to go away and make their own decision, because this may be very hard to do. (See a guide for doctors booklet).

Patient Portals

Patient portals are online platforms that allow patients to access their personal health information and securely communicate with their healthcare providers. As technology continues to advance, patient portals have become an invaluable tool to enhance patient engagement and education.

Some key benefits of using patient portals include:

  • Convenience – Patients can communicate with their doctor and access records anytime, anywhere. This saves time and eliminates the need for phone calls.

  • Preparedness – Patients can view test results and doctor’s notes prior to appointments, allowing them to come prepared with questions. This facilitates more productive visits.  (See Your consultation booklet)

  • Medication management – Portals provide medication lists, refill reminders, and e-prescriptions. This helps patients better adhere to treatment plans.

  • Health tracking – Many portals integrate with wearables and allow patients to update health data like blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar readings. This supports condition management.

  • Appointment management – Patients can schedule, reschedule, or cancel appointments through the portal. This simplifies logistics.

  • Education – Portals contain health education resources, immunization records, and preventive care reminders. This empowers patients to self-manage care.

With their convenience, transparency, and wealth of resources, patient portals are an essential education and engagement tool for the modern healthcare consumer. Utilizing portal communication can lead to better health outcomes as patients take a more active role in their care.


Effective healthcare communication benefits both patients and providers. By taking an active role in their care through education and engagement, patients gain greater understanding and satisfaction. Meanwhile, providers are able to deliver higher quality care tailored to each patient’s needs.

The strategies covered in this article, from active listening to health literacy to patient portals, aim to enhance communication between patients and their care team. While barriers exist, with training and dedication on both sides, we can work to lower these obstacles. Patient education is a journey requiring patience, empathy and a commitment to quality care from all involved.

As a patient, recognize that you have a vital role to play. Come prepared with questions, bring a notepad, and don’t hesitate to speak up when you need clarification. Make your priorities and preferences known. Share your medical history in detail and give feedback on your treatment experience. You deserve to be heard.

For providers, lean into curiosity. Get to know your patients as people first. Explain health concepts clearly and confirm understanding. Make decisions together. Effective healthcare communication takes work, but the outcome is well worth the effort.

To learn more about elevating patient education through better communication, check out the rest of our blogs here. You’ll find tips and insights to help make every patient-provider interaction more empowering and impactful. Together, through knowledge and partnership, we can transform healthcare experiences.

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