Do You Communicate As Well As This Classic Book?

This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry.

Recently, I flew home to join my siblings in caring for my mother as she recovered from surgery. While she was the one who went under the knife, the hospital’s lack of communication left us all pained.

Upon arrival, I was surprised to learn my mother had no idea exactly what the surgeon had done to her. Since it was the weekend, we could not contact him and it wasn’t until the post-op visit days later that we learned the details of the procedure. Nevertheless, we spent the weekend bonding while watching surgery videos on YouTube.

Throughout the weekend, the breakdowns in communication became even more apparent. In trying to remember post-op instructions, my mother explained how the surgeon and his assistant individually met with her and verbally explained the procedure.

They clearly neglected to follow one of the basic rules of communication: know your audience.

The author's mother experienced poor communication from her healthcare providers

The author’s mother experienced poor communication from her healthcare providers

My mother is a very young eighty-something, but many seniors often have difficulty recalling new information. Heck, retaining critical details delivered verbally can be challenging for anyone, especially when the fog of stress, painkillers, or other medications dull the mind. Complicating matters, the surgeon and the assistant contradicted each other; one said her recovery time would be brief while the other couldn’t underscore its seriousness enough. My mother was at least happy to hear she would be able to drive after just a few days’ rest.

The first post-op visit to the hospital yielded more surprises. It was on an x-ray that we first learned the surgeon had inserted a giant temporary pin and permanent plate in her foot. We also learned that my mother would not be able to drive for at least six weeks. Suddenly, we needed to double down on our plan for food deliveries and running errands. Finally, she was informed her bandages would be replaced with a stiff cast for which she would be charged $65. Thankfully, covering the surprise bill was not an issue, but for other seniors this news would be financial catastrophe.

So it’s clear this doctor doesn’t have good patient communication sewn up. But how should good medical communication unfold? If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve probably read the runaway best-selling book “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” an excellent guide that explains the miracle of life step-by-step. In fact, every profession should communicate what they will do and how they will do it with the same customer-focused approach—what to expect when you’re buying a home, renting a car, getting a deck built, landing a job, being sued, or obtaining a membership to a club.

What To Expect When You're Expecting Book Cover

No matter your field, we public relations experts can support our customers by:

  1. Communicating all steps and considerations thoroughly and in the order they will happen
  2. Sharing these steps and considerations verbally, in print and online, and by having printouts available for patients to take home
  3. Losing the jargon and speaking in plain language; as a check, test your information with a pre-teen
  4. Encouraging loved ones or friends to be a part of the process and ask questions
  5. Translating all information into the more frequently-spoken languages in the area, hiring personnel who speak these languages or partnering with agencies able to translate
  6. Using pictures, diagrams and props to illustrate all information since different people learn in different ways

Some doctors have patients sign information sheets after pre-op meetings to guarantee understanding. Doctors interviewed for a recent Wall Street Journal article say they can gauge patient clarity through the art of simple conversation by having patients answer simple questions, such as “How will you explain this procedure to your friends and co-workers?” In addition, they advise their fellow doctors to pause after speaking to ensure patients have time to digest information. That’s good advice.

Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

What have I missed? Please share your strategies and tactics for improving client communications in the comments section below.