The medical dream team: Solutions for common communication challenges

Alistair Gardiner | November 23, 2021

Roughly half of all Americans have at least one chronic condition, and just over one-third have two or more. Those with the highest number of chronic conditions see an average of 14 different physicians, according to a review published in American Psychologist. This makes communication among healthcare teams as critical to patient outcomes as diagnostic tests and medications.

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Close-up of hands on hands, medical teamwork concept

Hospital teams that employ effective communication and consensus-based decision-making strategies have a better chance of achieving positive patient outcomes.

A single patient visit can involve interactions between a group of clinicians working across disciplines, as well as administrative staff, patients’ family members, and the patients themselves. Multiple visits might also mean that physicians from different organizations may need to be brought into the fold. As such, patient outcomes rely on effective communication and functional consensus-based decision-making strategies.

The authors of a study published in Frontiers in Communication point out that breakdown in teamwork remains the top cause of clinical errors, with one analysis concluding that ineffective communication is involved in 60% to 70% of serious patient incidents. Poor communication between members of a care team can result in diagnostic inaccuracy, health complications for the patient, and reduced physician well-being.

To help you and the other members of your care team provide the best possible care, here’s a breakdown of several common barriers to effective team communication and consensus-based decision-making, plus tips to help you overcome these challenges.

Communication breakdown

Working with a large group to commit to a single decision can be tricky, because everyone brings their unique personality, values, and communication preferences to the discussion. Different members of a care team may have experienced different types of training, and they will have their own understanding of critical issues and approach to problem-solving. 

Through an analysis of literature, surveys, and interviews, the Frontiers in Communication review aimed to identify some of the challenges that arise when a diverse group gets together to make a decision in a healthcare setting. Researchers surveyed roughly 100 healthcare professionals across 10 care teams to examine barriers to communication and to provide solutions. 

Among the challenges they found were issues with individual accountability, which one study found to be among the top three causes of conflict. Specifically, colleagues who responded to situations by getting angry, frustrated, or by pleading were found to exacerbate issues. 

Accountability structures in some healthcare organizations may be at odds with expectations for team-level care placed on healthcare providers. Similarly, researchers found that inadequate conflict management is often a barrier to team communication. This can come in many forms. 

On one side of the scale, teams that don’t engage in open, constructive conflict may fail to address underlying issues. However, team members who verbally attack each other during disagreements can be equally ineffective.

One of the more challenging aspects of teamwork is group decision-making, which is key to positive patient outcomes, as each member of a care team can provide vital information that other members may not have. Difficulties arise when there is ambiguity in decision-making roles, accountability for decisions, and what level of agreement those with final decision authority need to achieve. Strategies like a majority-rule vote can also prove ineffective, as the dissenting minority may have less commitment to the decided-upon course of action. 

Two other team processes—reflecting on progress and team coaching—also come with challenges. Both are essential for the team to improve and develop together, and they work best when teams set aside time to review and evaluate activities and errors immediately after an event. 

Reflections and coaching tend to fail when they are punitive, or when they focus on general performance and competencies rather than on specific events. Other elements, like perceived favoritism and inauthenticity, can lead to distrust and may constitute barriers to effective team communication. 

It’s also worth noting that these days, it’s fairly common to have up to five different generations of workers under one roof at a clinic or hospital. And, while every individual is different, each generation shares particular characteristics—whether Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, or other age groups. Read more about their communication preferences here.   

How to address communication breakdown

Successful communication among care teams has many beneficial outcomes, but the most important may be patient safety. The American Psychologist review found various strategies that evidence indicates can help to make a team stronger, closer, and more functional:

  • Employ leader inclusiveness, which means that those with the most authority should use words or actions to support the contributions of others.

  • Use care team improvement tools, like checklists, goal sheets, and specific case analyses. These can come in the form of standardized handoff protocols, which can help reduce information loss occurring between care transitions.

  • Establish debriefings as an opportunity for everyone to discuss their performance and voice concerns. Strong leadership is key during these meetings.

Authors of the Frontiers in Communication review also describe a number of evidence-based techniques that can improve the strength of a care team:

  • Establish conditions for constructive conflict management, including allowing for a free exchange of information, ensuring all team members are actively listening, and aim to ask more questions about another person’s point of view while making fewer statements about your personal position.

  • Acknowledge that in all situations, you are sometimes the mentor and sometimes the student. Recognizing that you can learn from the suggestions and experiences of others can help your team become stronger.

  • Those in positions of leadership should begin any discussion by clearly outlining their purpose and the status of the decision, including factors like the timeline of the process. It’s also important to continuously update the team when the situation changes and to always actively seek input from all members.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Employing strategies like these not only leads to better outcomes for a patient, it can also benefit individual physicians. 

According to the American Psychologist review, effective communication creates a more positive, engaging, and resilient working environment. Physicians who report having better communication with their care teams also report lower rates of burnout and improved well-being.

It’s a better world for everyone when different groups learn how to work together in harmony. Using the strategies above can help your teams succeed. 

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