All 2017 CAAHEP accredited Diagnostic Medical Sonographers programs require communication course credits as prerequisites or general education requirements. The reason is simple: They must deal with patients in various physical and emotional states. Sonographers must always maintain composure and utilize positive communication skills, even when patients are irritable, impatient, angry or unreasonable. Positive communication skills keep conversations on track to enhance patience care, whether the patient is in a good or not-so-good frame of mind.
Preparing for a Spectrum of Communication Traits
The quality of healthcare services that patients receive is the sum of many factors, and one of those factors is the level of communication skills of the healthcare services provider. All healthcare professionals, including sonographers, influence the quality of patient care by how well they are able to communicate with the patient, even under difficult circumstances.
It would be nice if all patients showed up for their sonographic imaging appointments in a good frame of mind, cooperative and easy to talk to. However, that is an unrealistic expectation. Some patients will be very communicative, answer questions with great clarity and maintain composure even when in pain. On the other end of the communication spectrum are patients who are defensive, argumentative, evasive and/or angry.
In the middle are people who want to cooperate and fully communicate with the sonographer but are frightened. They are worried about their health, or there is a language or cultural communication barrier. The fear and worry impedes the ability to communicate.
Ultrasound technicians must find a way to communicate with patients even when the patients are difficult. They have to update medical histories with information supplied by the patient, give instructions and understand patient needs. Being able to eliminate the “noise” that impedes communication is a skill in every sense of the word. Some sonography students must develop the skill, while others seem to communicate with people with ease. Much of the quality of the communication process is dependent on the sonographer who must empathize and develop trust, even when the patient is resistant.
Words Do Matter
Sonography students learn in coursework and clinical training that words do matter. How the ultrasound technician responds to patients will determine how well the sonographer will be able to understand patient needs. For example, a patient may show great distress by wringing hands and expressing dissatisfaction with everything from the hospital staff to the temperature of the room. It is quite possible the emotions are actually the result of the patient’s health fears.
The patient says, “I hope you do a better job than the rest of the people running around here. I have no idea what is going on.” The sonographer responds with, “You should not feel that way about the staff because they are professionals trying to help people like you and others who have more serious health issues.” The inappropriate response with the words “like you” and “more serious” effectively creates a barrier between the healthcare professional and the patient. The patient falls silent, either feeling like no one around her understands how difficult the whole experience has been or feeling guilty for saying anything.
Instead, the sonographer should say something like, “This really is a busy place, isn’t it? Each of our healthcare professionals stay busy taking care of patients’ medical needs and have many tasks to complete, including updating medical records. I will be happy to spend time with you to explain the ultrasound imaging procedure.” This response does not give the patient’s statement about the staff any credence, but it does acknowledge the patient is really asking for more information. It is all about the right word choices.
Tearing Down Barriers
Sonographers who create communication barriers will have difficulty getting the information needed to do the best job. Barriers to communication with patients are created when the sonographer is defensive, expresses anger, is dismissive of patient concerns, acts distracted, interrupts patients who are trying to explain something, gets impatient, or is argumentative or evasive. It is also inappropriate to tell patients, “Everything will be all right so stop worrying” because it implies the sonographer is not interested in listening to the patient as he tries to explain his concerns.
In the book, “Essentials of Sonography and Patient Care” (Elsevier Saunders, 2013), the author Marveen Craig discusses the importance of effective and positive communication for sonographers. She discusses various strategies for making patients comfortable while gathering information that can help the sonographer do the best job possible. They include:
- Avoiding making judgmental responses
- Asking for more information rather than arguing, debating or solving issues
- Never interrupting a patient who is sharing information
- Staying on a topic the patient brings up
- Speaking honestly and professionally instead of giving false assurances
- Telling the truth
- Sharing only factual information
- Personally answering patient questions rather than redirecting the patient to other people
- Never giving false reassurances
Of course, it goes without saying that the sonographer should not say things along the lines of, “You are not going to die,” or “This scan shows something serious is going on.” A lot of positive communication is simply common sense. The sonographer should be asking this: How would I want to be talked to if I were the patient?