The Importance of Listening in Healthcare

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alene nitzkey

By Alene Nitzky, Ph.D. RN OCN

I’m not sure who said it originally, but it’s been said that we have two ears, but just one mouth, for a reason.

Listening is what we do when we take the time to build a relationship with the patient.

When we meet with a patient, they are coming to us for a service, to get help for some problem for which they are not qualified to remedy themselves, just as we go to an auto mechanic when our car breaks down. Untrained in auto mechanics, we might understand the inner workings of the electronic circuits in our car as much as a patient without healthcare training understands their disease process.

We’re providing a service, not a product, however, we are still expected to produce good outcomes and improve health, and that only ends well when we build a relationship.

Healthcare should be about relationships, not transactions. Click To Tweet

 We need to establish trust by building the patient’s confidence in our skills, training, and experience that we bring to the relationship, so they will be as engaged as possible and get the most from their time with us.

We as healthcare providers must be engaged, fully focused on the patient during the time they are with us. We need to listen for important information, but not necessarily just for what goes into the EHR. That includes remembering their name and family members who are present, details about their own unique lives, their goals for their quality of life and health outcomes.  Eye contact, nonverbal expressions and body language are as important as conversation. Staring into a computer as a patient talks to us does not build trust or create engagement.

When we are educating the patient and we have important information for them, we need to do as much listening as talking.  We must ensure they received the message we intended, and understand it the way we intended. This means we take the time to listen to their own version of what they heard us say. When a visit or patient encounter is rushed, there might not be time to ensure that all the information is given and received as intended.

It’s important to remember that we are a team, we work together, and the patient steers the decision-making. The patient will make the ultimate decision, through informed choices. That’s why we need to be very attentive in listening to their questions. Are they truly understanding the risks and benefits of each option? If we suspect that they don’t understand or are not fully informed, then we need to listen to how they respond to us, including their nonverbal communication, and clarify in ways that will inform them.

Today our work is driven by data, typing things into the EHR, checking boxes, and other requirements that place an administrative burden on healthcare providers like never before. We still need to listen, and even more carefully, over the many distractions of technology.

When we spend too much time paying attention to data and productivity and forget about the real reason why we went into healthcare, we are not listening. Getting the message across takes time, often more time than we are allotted.

We need to push for time to listen, to serve the patient, so we can do our own jobs well. Click To Tweet

We must always remember that it is our job to support them in becoming informed so that they can make decisions in their own best interest. They are not here for a quick purchase, or for us to persuade them to do what we would do for ourselves. We need to understand their priorities, lifestyle, goals, and values, and help them make decisions that will serve their own lives well.

Everyone in healthcare needs to use two ears to guide one mouth, if we want to serve patients’ needs, as well as our own professional goals of providing safe, quality patient care, well.

cancerharbors-logo-white-bkgdAlene Nitzky, Ph.D. RN OCN is CEO/Founder of Cancer Harbors, an educational and support service that extends beyond rehabilitation and survivorship care plans, for both cancer survivors and caregivers to improve and restore function and quality of life after treatment.

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5 Responses to The Importance of Listening in Healthcare

  1. And when we LISTEN we help to dilute the problem of Healthcare Illiteracy as we learn what they don’t know that they don’t know which is key to solving many chronic complex health care problems we all face every day. Thanks Alene!

  2. Soma Persaud says:

    Good Message & reminder about what is meaningful in nurse- patient relationships

  3. Thanks Beth, we need to speak up about our needs for time and resources to serve patients. Returning to a patient provider relationship-based service is goi to take a major overhaul of our healthcare system but we can start with small steps everyday. It takes confidence and courage!

  4. Alene, thank you SO much for your insightful and extremely important message. Listening and relationship-building are critical skills that take time and are vital to patient safety, patient experience, and healthy cultures and careers. I agree that we must push for the time to do this and in the long run we’ll optimize use of resources.

What are your thoughts?