Missed Messages

Update Communication Tools to Reduce Physician Stress, Improve Patient Outcomes

By Megan Headley

Miscommunication is more than a problem in healthcare—it’s a massive patient risk that can cause real harm. A December 2021 report published in the Journal of Patient Safety identified communication failures in 49% of medical malpractice claims between 2001 to 2011. Of those claims, 53% involved provider-to-patient miscommunication while 47% involved provider-to-provider miscommunication.

A lot has changed in healthcare since 2011, yet miscommunication is still the norm among clinicians. In its 2021 State of Healthcare Communication report, TigerConnect, a provider of collaborative communication tools, found that 35% of the more than 750 surveyed clinical and administrative respondents reported communication disconnects daily or multiple times a week.

Despite the push to drive healthcare into the modern age, tools such as fax machines remain commonplace. According to information from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, evidence indicates that around 70% of healthcare organizations still use fax machines.

Andrew Brooks, MD, chief medical officer at TigerConnect and an orthopedic surgeon by training, says that it no longer makes sense for clinicians to hold onto old processes due to concerns about safety or system integration when care advances are made every day.

“If you have a patient with a neuroblastoma of their brain, you have a neuroradiologist provide very precise radiation doses to an area to treat a tumor. But if you ask the neuroradiologist for the report on what was done, they’ll ask you for [your] fax number. There’s an insane gap between the clinical process and the ways we [communicate] about it,” Brooks says.

With new tools emerging that provide safe channels of communication for all parties involved, not making a change may place patients at risk.

Better communication means better care

As the Journal of Patient Safety report notes, miscommunication can happen between providers and when talking with patients. Effective tools and strategies will bring all these parties into the conversation. However, good communication also means keeping channels open.

“It’s stressful for people to engage with healthcare,” Brooks says. “They’re worried about something and not necessarily hearing everything as well as they would in a non-stress environment.”

The way patients are given information shouldn’t add to that stress. Yet TigerConnect found in its survey that 50% of respondents cited an inability to communicate with providers outside of a visit as their greatest frustration. Part of the problem may be in the way that this communication happens. The survey found 88% of physicians rely on phone calls to communicate with patients. This depends upon both parties being available and ready to process questions and answers.

Shifting to secure text or chat solutions allows parties to engage on their own terms. This convenience is a critical factor, particularly as healthcare continues its shift to a consumer-focused experience. Answers may not be immediate, but they will have the full attention of both individuals. In addition, some app-based solutions allow providers to loop in other parties, such as nursing staff or other partners, for consultation on certain patient questions.

The use of text and apps also allows all parties to offer more useful information. Depending on the platform, participants may be able to attach items such as appointment notes, discharge instructions, or photos for easy reference.

Is more communication asking too much?

Clinicians have more demands than ever on their time, so demanding more communication may seem problematic. However, Brooks says, real-time collaboration tools allow clinicians a greater degree of control over when and how they access information.

“From a stress perspective, I would argue that there’s stress that comes from the inability to get an answer or transmit the information on which you’re trying to drive action,” he says.

Brooks points to radiology as an example. During the approximately 70 CT or MRI scans a radiologist may read each day, most of the scans will be routine, while a small percentage may indicate a critical issue. In the latter case, the radiologist must communicate the issue to the physician and verify that the physician has received the information. But often, communicating this sensitive information involves rounds of phone tag.

“There’s an aspect of stress that just occurs by not being able to move the data, get an answer, take action, and move on,” Brooks says.

As Brooks points out, every individual involved in patient care has different communication needs. Collaborative communication tools allow all parties to select the information they want to receive, while also making it easy to pull partners in to discuss results via text, phone call, or video consultation. No matter how information is communicated, it’s possible to determine that the intended recipient received, read, or forwarded the information to another relevant party.

Systemwide communication drives holistic care opportunities

As communication expands to include more partners, it is becoming clear that opening channels to include all members of the health system offers big possibilities for efficiency.

“When you start to really delve into the workflow, providers realize we’re just one little part of the patient care journey,” Brooks says. “This is a symphony, and it requires coordinating care across a wide range of constituents.”

For example, Brooks points out that efficiently moving patients through a busy emergency department often comes down to bed availability. Alerting transport nurses and environmental services staff via an app or text can dramatically speed this process.

Food services is another area where effective communication can prove critical, as patients may have specific dietary needs. Bringing food services professionals onto a communication platform can improve health outcomes and patient satisfaction.

These efficiencies can also drive cost savings to patients. Brooks cites as an example a care referral institution that serves patients from around the world. In many cases, a consultation cannot begin without a translator present. Meanwhile, the patient could be spending an additional $400 an hour for a gastroenterologist’s time until the translator arrives. A secure video communication system could reduce the need for travel, save time for the clinician, and avoid excess hours billed at the patient’s expense.

Moreover, streamlined communication tools available today can close gaps that happen across medical buildings and off campus. This becomes particularly valuable as home health expands.

Modernized communication solutions allow for a more holistic approach to patient care, which is the biggest value of the technology both for clinicians and for patients. “It’s no longer just peer-to-peer physician and nurse communication,” Brooks says. “It’s really about the entire system.”

Megan Headley is a freelance writer and owner of ClearStory Publications. She can be reached at megan@clearstorypublications.com.