3 Tips for Communicating with Patients’ Families

3 Tips for Communicating with Patients’ Families

As a nurse, you already know communicating with patients and their families is one of the most important parts of your job. You are likely often busy with many tasks and may be looking after multiple patients, but taking the extra moment to connect can be vital to patient care, or in some cases, a matter of life and death.

Loved ones, such as spouses, parents, and children, may have questions, concerns, or information they need to share with you. Here are some tips that can help you navigate those emotionally challenging situations.

1. Listen.

Many people think of communication as talking. But listening is as important, or arguably, more important. Listening isn’t just being quiet when the other person talks. Really listening requires being fully present. Try to avoid distractions (we know it’s almost impossible for a nurse, but even for a few seconds). Don’t interrupt. Slow down, and take a moment to understand what the patient’s loved ones are saying. Take in not only the words, but also the visual cues from their facial expressions or body language. 

After the family member has finished speaking, summarize it. Repeating their communication back to them in your own words is a great way to let them know you understand what they are saying. It also helps you solidify that information in your own memory.

Don’t forget to ask follow up questions.  According to Harvard Business Review, “asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information.”

2. Pay attention to nonverbal communication.

Words are only one part of what you may be saying. Nonverbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice, are just as important. A famous study by Albert Mehrabian concluded that non-verbal communication may account for 93% of what a listener takes away from an interaction.

A more recent study that examined patient relationships with General Practitioners suggested nonverbal communication is especially important in the medical profession. “Nonverbal communication is an important factor by which patients spontaneously describe and evaluate their interactions with a GP. Family GPs should be trained to better understand and monitor their own nonverbal behaviors towards patients.”

In this study, tone of voice was perceived as the most important aspect of nonverbal communication by patients. When interacting with a patient’s family members, it may be helpful to use a kind, warm tone of voice and to steer clear of sounding angry or nervous.

Eye contact was perceived as the second most important nonverbal cue. Patients interpreted lack of eye contact as a lack of care or attention, and perceived eye contact as caring and involvement.

While this particular study looked at patients rather than patient families, these principles are likely to be helpful for communicating with anyone in a high-stress medical situation.

3. Make sure you are being HIPAA compliant.

HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, protects patient privacy and information. All nurses should be familiar with the details of this law, as violating it may harm patients or potentially cause a lawsuit. Patients generally must consent for their information to be released, even to the police. In some circumstances, family members may want medical information you are not legally able to give.

You can usually give medical information to family members involved in treatment or payment for treatment, provided the patient does not object. If you have any sense that the patient objects to their medical information being shared with a family member, it’s best to err on the side of caution. When in doubt, ask.