The Go-To Clinical Skill—Communications

Of All the Clinical Skills, Which Serve Patients Best?

It’s a tough question, given the range of patient needs and conditions. Yet one skill can have a huge impact time and time again: Communications.

Talking and listening to patients “is the most common procedure a clinician will employ,” says the non-profit Institute for Healthcare Communication (IHC). “Evidence continues to mount that a structured approach to communication measurably improves care delivery.” Effective clinician-patient communications can:

  • support better history-taking, diagnoses and clinical decisions

  • increase a patient’s adherence to recommendations and follow-ups

  • help patients to self-manage a chronic condition

  • influence patients to adopt preventive health behaviors

  • improve patient satisfaction and experience of care

That’s true across health care fields, and certainly in physiotherapy. A study in the May 2015 Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation looked at 24 physiotherapists from four hospital clinics who were working with patients with back pain. The physiotherapists were split randomly into two groups. One received eight hours of communication skills training.

Compared to the other group, the trained group subsequently paid greater attention to needs during clinical practice. “When patients’ psychological needs are supported,” the study stated, “willingness to participate and long-term compliance to treatment is more likely.”

Another study published in 2012 in the Journal of Physiotherapy (Australia) showed a clear link between communications abilities and what they called the “therapeutic alliance”. The study authors noted that “communication is an essential skill”, one that physiotherapists and other clinicians “need to master to improve quality and efficiency of care.”


Six Keys to Communications

Communication: Six Keys

  • Show Basic Courtesy

  • Ensure clarity

  • Listen

  • Consider Culture

  • Get on the Same Page

  • Watch Your Body Language

Preventing Complaints

The central role of communications in effective care is evident in the complaints the College receives. On the surface, a complaint might be about informed consent, fees or the quality of treatment, but the root problem is really communications. Often, the issue could have been avoided with little effort—risks and benefits clearly explained, simple language used or empathy shown. 

One College case involved a woman who sought physiotherapy after rotator cuff surgery. She complained that the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine wasn’t working during the 20 minutes it was applied. What gnawed at her beyond the malfunctioning equipment was the feeling, in her words, that “no one seemed concerned”.

When this patient had another appointment, she was kept waiting and was put off by what she perceived to be a “casual and uncaring” attitude.

Like any clinical skill, communications can be learned and honed. With the connections between communications and patient outcomes, this is a skill that requires dedication. As a physiotherapist, you’re not just providing care—you’re showing care. Ultimately, both have an effect on a patient’s well-being.

View the College's Cases of the Month