The Power of Effective Communication in Healthcare

 Georgia Read , Marketing Executive at Bodyswaps
December 12th 2023
With plenty of research highlighting the harm that inadequate communication causes in healthcare, the question becomes how do we improve and enhance communication to fill this gap. With a focus on the UK and the US, we’ll explore the vital role of effective communication in health and social care settings before highlighting some innovative tools that can enhance communication or revitalise communication training for healthcare practitioners.

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The impact of communication

Communication between people is more than just the words we say to one another; it also encompasses nonverbal acts (such as gestures or posture) and paraverbal forms (such as tone of voice, inflection, and verbal flow). Within healthcare, the two key types of communication necessary to create positive impacts are staff-patient and interprofessional communication (IPC).

Effective IPC enhances teamwork, boosts cost efficiency, and improves patient care. In fact, one study found that greater frequency of contact between lead nurses and their team members ‘was associated with better patient safety culture’. However, IPC training is often ‘poorly structured’ in medical schools, leaving students to pick up communication skills on the job, which may work for some but not others.

Communication between patients and staff lies at the heart of healthcare, and effective communication can improve the accuracy of diagnoses, promote patient-centred treatment decisions, and lower the risks of malpractice claims.

It can also bring in large cost savings. Research discovered that the introduction of patient-centred care conversations into NHS hospitals resulted in a reduction in time spent in hospital. As a result, the report’s net estimated cost saving for an average NHS Acute Trust introducing these care conversations would be £3 million a year, a total annual cost saving to NHS hospitals of £502 million.

Introducing care conversations could save an average NHS Acute Trust £3 million a year a total annual cost saving to NHS hospitals of £502 million.
However, failure to communicate can lead to opportunities for harm. For example, one study found that during diagnosis in the emergency department, almost a quarter of patients didn’t get an explanation of their health problem when being discharged. And one-quarter of those patients didn’t understand what their next steps should be, including what they should do if their condition didn’t improve or if it worsened.

Challenges to effective communication

Ensuring ongoing effective communication can be a highly challenging aspect of healthcare staff’s day-to-day. They have the difficulty of not only analysing information surrounding patient diagnoses but also recognising patients’ feelings, mindsets, and reactions and having the ability to use this information to determine the best way to communicate with patients. While some may develop the skills to manage this whilst on work placements or even in the workplace itself, better preparation outside of the real life experience of dealing with patients can make this easier for staff - giving both practitioners and patients a better experience.

IPC also faces its own set of challenges within healthcare, interprofessional coordination requires well-developed interpersonal communication skills from all involved, as well as sensitivity to professional and cultural differences. Yet again, teaching these skills is often lacking or forgotten altogether. 

So let's explore some ways we can teach communication skills in healthcare.

Teaching effective communication in health and social care

Key practices for good staff-patient communication

  1. Active listening skills
  2. Clear verbal communication - especially removing complex jargon from language
  3. Non-verbal cues

Introducing communication skills early in healthcare programmes and ensuring they’re continued throughout all years of the curriculum has ‘been shown to be effective in improving confidence and reducing the number of errors made and establishing a more permanent understanding of communication’. And an increased integration between communication and clinical teaching is key to ensuring that students learn to use the two skill sets together. 

Simulations and role play are two effective instructional methods when it comes to building communication skills. It’s vital that training combines soft skills development with real-life experience in order to promote the application of knowledge.

Key practices for effective IPC

  1. Active listening skills
  2. Clear verbal communication - though here jargon can be kept in
  3. Non-verbal cues

The three key practices may be the same for both staff-patient and interprofessional communication. However, they must be used differently to adjust to the situation at hand. While they can similarly be prepared as students, it’s vital that ongoing professional development opportunities are offered to continue the development of IPC. IPC encourages open and honest discussions, as well as promoting conflict resolution and shared decision making

Alongside the three key practices above, effective IPC also comes from skills in collaboration and teamwork. Professional development in the form of external courses, workshops or seminars, internal training programmes, or peer mentoring can all assist in developing these skills.

Tools for effective communication

Enhancing staff-patient communication

Another common method is through the use of data analysis - taking answers from questionnaires and utilising that to monitor soft skills development. One research paper presented a psychometric questionnaire designed specifically for young adults: the Soft Skills Inventory.

Teaching effective communication

We already mentioned that communication skills development can be supported through various courses and workshops. Often, these take place in person, with most soft skills training supported through peer-to-peer or instructor-to-student roleplay. For some, this shared experience can help learning as they build connections during the learning, and it can become emotionally imprinted. If these workshops are completed by teams, this can also help to foster a culture of collaboration.

However, learning in this way can equally bring anxiety to some, preventing any learning at all. In-person training and role-plays can bring a large cost, in terms of time and space as well as plain cash


"So thinking about the things that virtual reality simulation might offer as opposed to the other methods that we might teach, things like communication skills and empathy. Often when trainees talk about doing their role-plays or simulations, whether that's perhaps in trios with themselves or with actors, is they often describe feeling very embarrassed, it feels quite cheesy - especially doing it in front of colleagues."
Dr Alan Shirley
GP Clinical Director, South Yorkshire Primary Care Workforce & Training Hub


A common alternative is live online training, which saves time, space and often money, too. However, this can be limiting depending on individuals’ digital literacy. And it can also be harder to keep learners engaged over a webinar format.

An effective compromise is to enhance smaller in-person workshops with digital tools. A popular choice being immersive learning technology such as virtual reality. A smaller group means a smaller space is needed, and time can be properly allocated. However, the training can be as or even more effective when learners are given a safe space in which to play out simulations, rather than feeling the pressures or performance anxieties of group role-playing.

VR is perhaps most well-known within the health and social care sectors for providing on-the-job simulations to support clinical training. But the capabilities of VR to instruct soft skills shouldn’t be underestimated.

At Bodyswaps, for example, we’ve worked with a variety of partners in the health and social care sectors to help them elevate their soft skills training


"I see one of the advantages of virtual reality is people are doing that much more on their own. They perhaps remove some of that performance anxiety. People can perhaps find ways of being more authentic selves rather than overthinking what am I supposed to be doing?"
 Dr Alan Shirley
GP Clinical Director, South Yorkshire Primary Care Workforce & Training Hub


And we developed our most recent Healthcare module, Navigating Angry Conversations, with the Royal Society of Medicine. Our subject matter expert for this module, Dame Lesley Fallowfield, providing decades of experience and knowledge to ensure our module content would be as effective as possible for staff and students, improving their communication skills with patients.

Transform soft skills training for your staff and students with Bodyswaps. Uncover our Discovery package, which offers all the essentials you need to deploy a successful Bodyswaps pilot.



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