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A New Resource for Coaching Efficient & Empathetic Communication Strategies

March 19, 2021

The Center for Health Communication Think Tank, an initiative of Dell Med and Moody College of Communication's joint Center for Health Communication, has launched the Clinician Communication Effectiveness Program to equip health care providers with practical communication strategies and tools they can implement into their daily work immediately.

The team, including health communication specialists David Ring, Laura Brown and Drew Coolidge, has led virtual communication coaching sessions offering efficient, empathetic strategies for navigating challenging patient conversations marked by high emotions and uncertainty about illness or treatment. There are several common areas of uncertainty for a patient: the kind of care they may receive; the cause of the condition; work and finances; and whether or not a non-surgical treatment plan can help them feel better.

Clinicians have highlighted the program’s usefulness in establishing patient trust and increasing confidence in communicating in difficult contexts. One provider, a nurse practitioner, shared a difficult conversation they were planning to have with a patient — a 68-year-old woman with a shoulder injury sustained at work. Here's what she had to say:

"This patient’s work claim was now over a year old, and she had been now treated for adhesive capsulitis that reportedly developed early on in her course. After reviewing the records … we quickly concluded that her symptoms were no longer a result of her work injury. This filled me with anxiety, as I saw the potential for confrontation in having to explain this to the patient. Furthermore, the patient came to me very much in despair over her condition, citing her pain and limited mobility as great hindrances to not only her work, but her activities of daily living. She was fixated on the idea that her symptoms were due to her injury, and was giving up hope that she would ever be “normal” again.

However, using the strategies championed by David Ring and Laura Brown, I was able to start with 'I worry' and 'I hope' language. I began by expressing to her how I hoped she would recover completely and quickly, and discussed the natural course of adhesive capsulitis. In using “I hope” language, I was able to separate myself from the illness, and feel less guilty for her current state, and in turn less anxiety. I was actually taken aback by how a simple change in phrasing could immediately help put me at ease. And more so, I saw it bring the patient a sense of calm and reassurance as well.

I was also able to use 'I worry' language to talk about my concerns over her catastrophic thinking, as well as unpacking the reasons for her persisting symptoms (as with an illness versus an injury), and this seemed to help. I feel like it went a long way in her starting to see me as an ally, rather than an adversary. Fast forward to now, I was able to discharge her this week. She has shown improved confidence and less despair, and I think it was due in no small part to the trusting foundation her and I were able to establish using these communication strategies."

The coach in this instance, Laura Brown, emphasizes that the “I worry” and “I hope” language may have initiated change at three levels: establishing a trusting and allied relationship between clinician and patient; helping the clinician feel less guilty and anxious; and helping the patient to feel calm, reassured and confident. Within a 30-minute session, coaches provide evidence-based recommendations that are tailored to clinician needs and break down challenging conversations into impactful strategies.

At present, the program offers small group virtual sessions and one-on-one coaching. If you’re interested in learning more or scheduling a session with the Clinician Communication Effectiveness Program, send the team an email.