Active listening matters in health care

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More than 10 years ago, a Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado defined active listening as "a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding."

Let's face it, how often have we found ourselves not so much staring at a person and pretending to be listening to what they're saying to you as much as staring through that person and drifting off to some other thought?

No need to feel shame or embarrassment. We've all done it. Especially in this modern digital age, where distractions are abundant and easily engaged, taking our minds to places often off-topic and, at best, superfluous.

Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. When it comes to working in health care, it's even more important that we be active listeners.

That's because the speaker, in many instances, is the patient, who demands and deserves the full attention of the health care professional providing care. The speaker also could be the physician or practitioner whom you're working under, so it's important that you give full attention to what they're telling you, as well.

Absorbing information through active listening

Nick Ewell, JD, Campus President at Concordes Garden Grove, Calif. campus, said active listeners are able to more effectively absorb and pass on information gleaned during a conversation or lecture.

While this might seem like common sense, Ewell said, the practical application requires discipline and a specific plan. A few "tips and tricks" you can employ right away:

  • Eliminate any potential distractions, such as cell phones, laptops and side conversations
  • Take time to consider your responses before speaking
  • Repeat back the information presented

Knowing that you will be giving this summation at the end will help you retain focus. Additionally, the summation and follow-up questions will often reveal deeper insights from the material presented. This might sound difficult, Ewell said, but all you need to do is summarize the conversation and then lead with an open-ended question like, "Does that make sense?" or "Did I get that right?"

Strengthening relationships through active listening

According to the Institute for Healthcare Communication (IHC), research evidence indicates there are strong positive relationships between a health care team member's communication skills and a patient's capacity to follow through with medical recommendations, self-manage a chronic medical condition and adopt preventive health behaviors.

A clinician's ability to explain, listen and empathize can have a profound effect on biological and functional health outcomes as well as patient satisfaction.

It is estimated that one-third of adults with chronic illnesses underused their prescription medication because of cost concerns, yet they failed to communicate this information to their physician.

Another IHC study found that less than half of hospitalized patients could identify their diagnoses or the names of their medications, an indication of ineffectual communication with their health care provider.

That's where active listening comes in.

Other benefits include:

  • It avoids misunderstandings, as people have to confirm that they do really understand what another person has said
  • It tends to open people up, to get them to say more
  • It helps people avoid conflicts, because people become more attuned to concerns and don't feel as though they're being dismissed

Improving health care outcomes through active listening

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report on Health Professions and Training underscores the importance of communication training for clinicians and members of the health care team. Similar to other health care procedures, communication skills need to be practiced and improved upon.

"As we are increasingly bombarded with stimuli, both auditory and visual, we can find it difficult to focus attention on just one source of information," Ewell said. "That is precisely what we are called to do, however, when we learn a new skill or gather important information."

"It is for this reason that we must work to become more conscious, engaged and ACTIVE listeners."

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