Communication is an important skill for all medical assistants to master. It is important to use verbal and nonverbal communication, understand communication interferences and acquire good listening skills. There are also barriers to communication including patients with an impaired level of understanding, the visually and hearing impaired and those that speak a different language. The medical assistant will want to improve their communication skills to better educate and treat patients.
Medical assistants will need to master both oral and written communication. Verbal communication is the use of sounds and words to express oneself. Interpersonal communication and public speaking are the two main forms of verbal communication. Verbal communication is used to relay a message to one or more recipients.
Written communication has three main elements which include structure, style and content. A good structure will help a medical assistant express themselves more clearly and lay out the content properly. Style is the way the communication is written whether neat or elegant, simple, complex or concise. The third element is the content that is written. The medical assistant will want to have a clear objective, focus on a set of main points, clearly explain those main points and finally check for spelling and grammar.
Medical assistants will need to use and interpret body language, tone of voice, voice pitch, voice volume, voice quality, facial expression, body position, and gestures.
Body Language - what patients will use to show feelings and emotions. Most of body language is subconscious so it is important for the medical assistant to be aware of the patient's nonverbal messages.
Tone of Voice - the language the patient and medical assistant use, the way the sentence is constructed and the sound of their words including the personality they bring.
Voice Pitch - the rate of vibration of the vocal folds. As the number of vibrations increases, so does the pitch making the voice sound higher.
Voice Volume - the pitch, timbre and rate of speech. The purpose for medical assistants will be to learn how to modulate their voice volume to an appropriate level.
Voice Quality - includes the fundamental frequency and intensity. The frequency is measured as high or low and the intensity is either soft or loud.
Facial Expression - one or more positions of the muscles beneath the skin of the face. The most common facial expressions include happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust.
Body Position - body position can be used to reinforce or emphasize what a person is saying and offer additional information about a person's emotions, attitude or intentions.
- Open and Closed Posture - reflects a person's degree of confidence, status or receptivity to another person. An open posture shows confidence and acceptance, whereas a person that is closed, possibly with their hands folded in front of their body is not receptive to the person speaking or lacks confidence.
- Mirroring - where the posture of two people matches. If two people are mirroring one another they are indicating interest and approval.
Gestures - where visible bodily actions communicate particular messages. They include movement of the hands, face or other body parts.
- Emblems - the signal that all is ok. For example, a thumbs up gesture.
- Illustrators - a common hand movement that accompanies a phrase over and over.
- Regulators - may include head nods, short sounds and expressions of interest or boredom.
- Adaptors - represent a psychological need. For example, covering the face if a person is embarrassed or slapping the head after forgetting something.
Eye contact is important for medical assistants when talking with patients and colleagues. Keeping eye contact shows that the medical assistant is showing interest in the conversation and is involved. It is important to note however that in some cultures it is not polite to stare at older people.
Touching patients can be interpreted in many different ways. Moving in may show interest or viewed as aggression. Even a gentle pat on the shoulder can be reassuring however many adults do not like to be touched, so the medical assistant should use their discretion.
Many things can interfere with communication between the medical assistant and the patient. Whether it is a distracting environment, noise or lack of privacy, the medical assistant should reduce the amount of interruptions during patient communication. There can also be interference from the patient or medical assistant's emotions whether it is anger, fatigue, fear, anxiety or being preoccupied. Both external and internal interferences can obstruct patient communication.
Personal appearance may also influence a patient's trust or confidence in a medical assistant. The medical assistant should always wear appropriate attire, use good hygiene and look presentable.
A medical assistant will want to practice good listening skills. The most important listening skill is active listening. A person that is actively listening is paying close attention to what the other person is saying. The medical assistant can't allow emotions or thoughts to interfere with the interpretation of the patient's message. There are ways to make sure that the patient has listened to the medical assistant, they are:
Vocal Mirroring - asking the patient to repeat what was said by rephrasing a question.
Listening for Feelings - patients may use specific words or themes to describe their medical condition which may give the medical assistant clues to the patient's emotional state.
Observant Listening - A patient's facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues can tell the medical assistant a lot about the patient and their state of mind.
Patient Listening - a medical assistant should allow patients to tell their story in their own way. If questions need to be answered, the medical assistant should ask them with the least amount of interference to the story.
Barriers to Effective Communication
Impaired Level of Understanding - in this situation, the medical assistant should use short sentences with simple words. They should speak normally and slowly so the patient can follow the conversation. Strong eye contact can also help the patient focus. Children and the elderly may need additional consideration when the medical assistant educates them. The medical assistant should give a direct and complete explanation at the patient's level of understanding.
Sight Impaired - a patient may be totally or legally blind. Legally blind refers to an individual whose vision can't be corrected beyond 20/200. The medical assistant should be verbally descriptive and may use touch for guidance however the patient will usually initiate assists.
Hearing Impaired - Can include patients that are deaf or that have impaired hearing. The medical assistant should face the patient and speak clearly. They may speak a little louder however, the medical assistant shouldn't speak so loud they lose clarity. Some patients are able to lip read or understand facial expressions. Sign language can be used for those patients that are familiar with it.
Language Barriers - if the medical assistant and patient speak a different language it can be difficult to communicate. Spanish is a language to learn for medical assistants as a large portion of the U.S. population is Hispanic. The easiest way to communicate is with a translation service or the patient may bring a child in to translate.
Interested in learning more about the medical assistant and how to communicate with patients? Want to become a medical assistant? Mildred Elley offers a Medical Assistant Program that prepares students for entry-level positions in physician's offices, clinics, hospitals and other medical facilities as a medical assistant. Contact us today to learn more about becoming a medical assistant.