Building Effective Nurse-Patient Communication: 8 Key Strategies

Your patients trust you during some of the most vulnerable, uncertain, and worrisome moments of their lives. They look to you for answers in these critical times, as well as support and medical treatment. But here’s the thing—your ability to adequately help them (and their ability to trust the decisions you make regarding their care) depends on effective nurse-patient communication.

Interacting with patients is a skill that’s often overlooked or minimized within the healthcare industry, but it’s actually one of the most crucial requirements for medical jobs. Without clear, transparent, and respectful communication, the patient-nurse relationship can begin to deteriorate, making it difficult to maintain a high quality of care.

The good news? There are several simple strategies nurses and healthcare professionals can use to maintain effective communication with patients. We’ll be sharing these strategies in today’s blog but first, let’s take a closer look at what makes the communication skills of a nurse so essential to the success of their role.

The Importance of Communication in Nursing

It’s a common misconception that a polite and engaging bedside manner is the only requirement for the job. This isn’t accurate, of course. While it’s an important part of interacting with patients, nurse-patient communication also refers to the ability to exchange important information and concerns in a healthcare setting. Effective communication is essential for building trust, ensuring patient understanding of their care and treatment options, and addressing the physical and emotional needs of patients. It plays a crucial role in providing high-quality, patient-centered care and can contribute to improved patient outcomes and satisfaction.

However, even more importantly, poor communication can actually put patients at risk. Studies show communication failures can be attributed to 70% of sentinel events (death or serious injury not caused by the patient’s illness) within the healthcare system. Another study found that 25% of hospital readmissions could be avoided with improved nurse-patient communication.

These research findings, along with many others, show how vital effective communication is in terms of positive patient outcomes. So, with this information in mind, how can nurses strengthen their communication skills and contribute to safer, more supportive healthcare environments for all patients?

Let’s find out.

8 Ways to Build Effective Nurse-Patient Communication

Nonverbal Communication

Did you know it’s estimated that 70-93% of all communication is non-verbal? Humans have evolved over centuries to be acutely aware of unspoken cues, like facial expressions, posture, and eye contact. All of this information is gathered throughout a conversation, helping the other person determine how you feel about what you’re saying or the intention behind your words.

Let’s look at an example. If you’re explaining the chronic disease a patient has been diagnosed with, but you’re smiling and not holding any tension in your body, the patient is more likely to feel at ease and hopeful about their ability to manage the disease. But if you’re frowning and nervously clicking your pen, they’ll be more inclined to assume the worst.

The solution? Be aware of your physical stance and facial expressions when communicating with patients. Use a calming tone, maintain eye contact as much as possible, and sit or stand up straight with your shoulders back.

Active Listening

One of the most integral ways to improve communication in healthcare is to practice active listening when interacting with patients. Effective conversations aren’t just about conveying information, they’re also about making the other person feel heard, respected, and understood. Active listening also helps improve patient care, ensuring you have all the necessary information. 

There are several simple ways you can engage in active listening, including:

  • Not interrupting when the patient is speaking
  • Listen without jumping to conclusions or assuming what the patient means
  • Smile and use your facial expressions to let the patient know you’re listening
  • Summarize what the patient has said before responding with your answer (I.e. “So from what I understand, the arthritis in your knees is starting to impact your ability to go up and down stairs, but you also don’t want to stop using stairs completely. You want a solution that will make it easier and safer for you.”)
  • Inquire further instead of immediately dismissing or countering an idea or belief. (I.e. “You said you feel this medication makes you light-headed. I understand you want to stop taking it, but these symptoms typically go away after a couple of weeks. Do you think you manage for one more week to see if the symptoms lessen over time?”)

By following these best practices, you can significantly increase how comfortable and safe a patient feels in your care.

Verbal Communication

We know it is important for nurses and patients to communicate effectively, but that doesn’t mean we’ve learned the necessary skills to start and maintain conversations that are clear, helpful, and proactive — especially when there’s a conflict or a misunderstanding. 

This is where learning specific tips and tricks can be beneficial. Here are a few verbal communication skills you can practice:

  • Asking for clarification (I.e. “You said physical therapy isn’t working. Do you mean it hasn’t fixed the issue completely? Or that you haven’t seen any progress at all?”)
  • Avoid using medical jargon when possible (I.e. Instead of saying “You have a conventional lipoma. It’s a tumor that’s filled with lobules of mature adipocytes,” try something like “The bump on your leg isn’t cancerous. It’s a common type of benign tumor that can easily be removed.”)
  • Recap important details (I.e. “I want to confirm that you understand the next steps. You’ll need to take this medication for a week, then you’ll come back for another assessment. If your symptoms haven’t improved, we’ll have to do an ultrasound. Do you have any questions?”)

Written Communication

The importance of communication in nursing isn’t just limited to verbal conversations. The way you write and take notes also plays a critical role in how your patients receive and understand information, and also how you deliver care.

Below are a few pointers that can improve written nurse-patient communication:

  • Provide clear, precise instructions when needed. (I.e. “Ice the injured ankle for 10 minutes at least once per hour. Avoid putting pressure directly on the ankle and minimize the amount of walking. Take aspirin only as needed and according to dosage instructions. Only remove elastic bandage wrap when showering or bathing.”)
  • Write legibly and always take your time when jotting down information for a patient. Patients, as well as pharmacists and other healthcare providers, must be able to easily read and understand your writing.
  • Always record dates and times to ensure accurate medical documentation. 

Patient Education

Patients want to make informed decisions about their medical care and treatments. But in order for that to happen, they need to be educated about their condition, the options that are available to them, and potential future outcomes.

This is why nurses need to know how to ensure patient understanding. When healthcare providers are confident not just in their ability to provide information, but in their ability to confirm understanding, patient education becomes a natural part of the nurse-patient relationship.

Here are a few ways to accomplish this:

  • Determine what your patient already knows by asking questions. (I.e. “We’ve reviewed your bloodwork and the results indicate you have sickle cell anemia. Have you heard of the condition before? Tell me what you know about it”.)
  • Identify barriers to effective health education. (I.e. Does the patient struggle to understand English? Are they unable to travel to specialized clinics or appointments due to mobility issues? Is the patient in a highly emotional state?)
  • Inquire about the patient’s current self-care or illness management practices. (I.e. “It’s been six months since you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Why don’t you take me through a typical day? How are you managing your symptoms?”)

Trust Building

Building trust with patients is the cornerstone of effective healthcare. When patients trust their nurses, they share vital information, follow advice, and generally feel safer in clinical settings. 

Patients not feeling comfortable in a healthcare setting can lead to a long list of potential problems, including:

  • The patient withholding information or not disclosing health concerns
  • Skipping appointments or not following through with treatment plans
  • Feelings of anxiety and stress when having to interact with healthcare professionals

Fortunately, there are proven methods of establishing trust and collaboration between nurses and patients.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Show empathy for your patient’s fears, emotions, and concerns
  • Fulfill promises or commitments when you make them (I.e. Following up when you say you will, providing additional information that they’ve requested, etc.)
  • Respect your patient’s right to make informed decisions about their care and personal treatment plan
  • Present all potential treatment options and encourage patients to provide their input 
  • Admit when you aren’t certain about something and reassure the patient you’ll find the answer as quickly as possibl

Developing Personal Relationships

It’s a common misconception that nurses shouldn’t form personal relationships with patients. In reality, building a bond can significantly improve the quality of care a patient receives.

Strong nurse-patient relationships empower patients to communicate openly about their concerns, symptoms, and preferences — resulting in accurate assessments and tailored care plans. The key is ensuring nurses balance empathy and compassion with a professional demeanor, respecting the patient’s privacy and dignity at all times.

Examples of establishing a personal relationship with a patient include:

  • Asking if they would prefer to receive appointment updates via text, email, or phone call
  • Engaging in casual conversation (I.e. “How old are your kids?” or “Did you enjoy your vacation?”)
  • Inquiring about the patient’s personal health and wellness goals (I.e. “You mentioned you’ve experienced some weight gain since starting this medication. Is that something you’re okay with? Or would you like to explore options for addressing it?”)

Practicing Compassion

A nurse’s role spans far beyond just administering medications and treatments — it also includes establishing a compassionate environment where patients feel heard, valued, and emotionally supported. 

When patients sense empathy from healthcare providers, it alleviates anxiety, promotes a sense of comfort, and enhances their overall experience during their healthcare journey.

Ways to show compassion in a healthcare setting include:

  • Offer reassurance when patients are afraid or overwhelmed. (I.e. “I know this isn’t the outcome you were hoping for, but you’re in good hands and there are several effective treatment options available.”)
  • Provide comfort whenever possible. (I.e. Bring the patient a warm blanket, share a lighthearted joke, or apply a cool cloth to their forehead if they’re experiencing a fever.)
  • Refer to the patient by name. It’s a simple gesture that shows you care about them as a person, not just as a patient.

How to Communicate with Patients with Language Barriers & Hearing Impairments

Whether you’re unsure of how to communicate with patients who speak English as a second language or how to improve communication with elderly patients who are experiencing hearing impairments — there are methods you can use to achieve successful outcomes.

Here are a few of our top recommendations: 

  • Use translation apps when engaging in basic conversation with patients who do not speak English as their primary language.
  • Encourage family members to accompany their loved ones to important appointments where patient understanding is critical.
  • Repeat and confirm understanding multiple times, if necessary, to ensure the patient fully understands what is being said.
  • Use visual aids such as diagrams, charts, or images when speaking to patients who are hearing impaired.
  • Face patients who are deaf or hard of hearing, and clearly enunciate your words to facilitate lip reading.

Find Nursing Jobs with Triage Staffing

Whether you’re a seasoned nurse looking for a change or a new graduate eager to kickstart your career, Triage Staffing is a premier travel nursing agency that connects nurses with fulfilling and rewarding jobs in the healthcare industry. 

We work directly with you to get an understanding of your professional preferences, needs, and goals before matching you with positions that are perfectly suited to your needs. Plus, we make sure you get paid weekly and we provide you with an impressive employee benefits package. 

Are you ready to make a difference in the lives of countless patients? Find exciting travel nurse jobs today!