Types of Communication and Why Mastering Each Is Important for Health Literacy

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A medical team stands in front of a hospital.

False information reaches 1,500 Twitter users six times faster than the truth, according to a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an era that’s becoming more centered on technology, information and misinformation can spread in an instant through social media, the internet and social networks. Because of this, it’s important for professionals to effectively communicate and have accurate information when they do so.

Communication is vital in all industries, but particularly in health care, as lives quite literally depend on it. Health care professionals should work to master essential types of communication: verbal, nonverbal, written and professional business communication.

Doctors, nurses, administrators and other health care professionals must communicate effectively not only with each other but also with patients. To understand their medical conditions, take the appropriate medications and have conversations with their doctors, patients should be health literate. The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as the “degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

An important correlation exists between health literacy and clear communication, and poor communication and misunderstandings can negatively impact a facility’s ability to deliver quality care. To provide the best care for their patients and help their institutions function effectively, health care professionals should exhibit strong communication skills in their daily roles. Students and professionals pursuing leadership roles in health care can earn an online Master of Arts in Health Communication to become proficient in the different types of communication.

What Is Verbal Communication? Hearing Beyond Words

Verbal communication comprises the words people speak to each other, in person or using technology. Proper verbal communication is very important in a health care setting, as registered nurses (RNs), nurse practitioners, nurse managers, doctors and administrators are constantly communicating about patients.

Verbal Communication with Medical Professionals

Medical professionals use verbal communication to share key information regarding patients and facility conditions. For example, RNs relay patient updates to each other while transitioning between shifts, and nurse managers make announcements to their units regarding schedule changes.

Nurse practitioners verbally communicate with their colleagues to determine how to best navigate a situation holistically. A pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), for example, may discuss a child’s condition with a family nurse practitioner (FNP). While the PNP specializes in children’s health, an FNP who works with a child’s family may have special knowledge about related medical history.

Verbal communication is particularly important between nurses and doctors. As both types of medical professionals work one-on-one with patients — diagnosing them, monitoring their health, and prescribing or administering medication — it’s important for them to communicate clearly.

Verbally Communicating with Patients

Health care professionals also spend considerable time verbally communicating with patients. Doctors and nurse practitioners need to be clear when verbally communicating, particularly when discussing significant procedures and prescribed medications.

Verbal communication is especially important in helping patients establish health literacy. If doctors don’t clearly enunciate and break down complicated medical terms for their patients, then patients may not understand important details about their conditions or how to recover.

Verbally Communicating with Specialists

Primary care physicians and FNPs can’t always provide patients with the level of care they need. When this happens, doctors refer their patients to specialists with expertise in certain conditions.

Doctors may verbally communicate with specialists when making referrals, either in person or over the phone. They must clearly express their patients’ needs and delineate expectations for continuing care. Even though specialists are an important element of advanced care, 25% of doctors and primary care providers who refer their patients to specialists don’t know whether their patients follow up the referral with an appointment, according to ReferralMD. Strengthening communication and follow-up between doctors and specialists is key to optimal outcomes.

Verbal Communication with Administration

Verbal communication with administration is important for doctors, RNs, charge nurses and nurse managers alike. Nurse managers act as the bridge between medical professionals and health care facility administrators. To keep track of schedules, budgets and other important information, medical professionals verbally communicate with administrators in their facilities.

Charge nurses also verbally communicate with their nurse managers and administrators. As shift leaders, they express hiring needs and report on supply levels. They can also communicate about budgets and schedules, as they often help nurse managers with administrative tasks.

RNs often communicate with administrators through nurse managers, but doctors verbally communicate with administrators regarding new, current and discharged patients.

Nonverbal Communication: Examples and Why It’s Important

Nonverbal communication is one of the most important types of communication. Nonverbal communication primarily revolves around body language and facial expressions. However, behavioral patterns, clothing choices and overall appearance also contribute to nonverbal communication. To communicate effectively, professionals in every field should be aware of body language and how their appearance communicates a message.

Nonverbal communication is particularly important in health care, as patients can pick up as much information from how medical professionals express themselves through their behavior and mannerisms as they can from their words.

The Study of Nonverbal Communication

In the 1960s, UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian conducted a groundbreaking study on nonverbal communication. He showed subjects pictures of female faces with distinct positive and negative emotions and played recordings of nine different words with a variety of positive and negative connotations. The subjects consistently derived meaning from the facial expressions more accurately than from the words.

While verbal communication may seem to be the most obvious and important type of communication, Mehrabian found that it made up just 7% of how people derive meaning, while 55% of communication was nonverbal. Experts in the field have continued to study the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication. Most experts now agree that nonverbal communication makes up 70% to 93% of all communication.

Examples of Nonverbal Communication

To understand why nonverbal communication is so meaningful, it’s helpful to consider some examples.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are one of the most prominent ways people use body language to communicate. The same words accompanied by different facial expressions will be perceived differently.

For example, doctors who exhibit good bedside manner will make sure their facial expressions are kind and comforting as they deliver results of a lab test to a patient.

Vocal Tone

Like facial expressions, tone of voice can completely change how a listener interprets words. While vocal tone is an aspect of verbal communication, many nonverbal cues inform an audience about the speaker’s meaning.

For example, if a nurse practitioner tells a patient that she must take her medication several times a day, he or she can emphasize the importance through tone of voice.

Fidgeting

Small body movements can show what an individual is feeling without saying so explicitly. Fidgeting can take the form of nail biting, tapping the fingers or feet, playing with a pen or pencil, or shaking the knees and can connote impatience or nervousness.

For example, an MRI technologist may notice a patient is nervous to enter an MRI scanner if she is tapping her feet and biting her nails.

Posture

Posture can indicate someone’s level of interest in a conversation. Individuals may lean forward and look directly at the speaker, sit back in their chairs and fold their arms, stand still and look ahead, or walk around and constantly shift their attention, each of which expresses a different level of engagement.

For example, if a young patient is leaning back and looking around her primary care provider’s room during a check up, the provider may see that she isn’t paying attention.

Distance

Like posture and tone, physical distance can express someone’s mood and level of engagement in a conversation. While speaking to someone from a distance doesn’t make conversation easy, speaking too closely can be viewed as obtrusive.

For example, between shifts, two nurses have a casual conversation about their favorite patient while standing about a foot and a half apart.

Head and Hand Gestures

Some nonverbal types of communication vary in different cultures. However, certain head movements, such as nodding yes, are almost universal. Hand gestures, such as pointing or indicating a number by holding up the fingers, are also often used to communicate.

For example, a doctor can indicate to a nurse where to insert a patient’s IV by pointing to the vein on the patient’s arm.

Nonverbal Communication in Health Care

Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals should understand the crucial nature of body language and facial expression when talking to patients and how unclear physical cues can convey incorrect messages. This form of communication can also be impacted by cultural differences, so medical professionals should be aware that different hand gestures and approximations of physical distance can have different meanings for different people.

Speech patterns and other nonverbal cues help patients gain a complete grasp of the message a health care professional is trying to convey, including the following:

  • Clarity
  • Pitch
  • Volume
  • Speech speed
  • Pauses

Factors such as appearance and clothing can also convey certain messages to a patient.

Verbal vs. Nonverbal Communication: What’s the Difference?

It’s important to recognize how the elements of verbal and nonverbal communication interact, as a message’s verbal content can align with or contradict nonverbal components, such as body language. Kind words, if accompanied by an angry facial expression, will likely be interpreted as angry rather than kind.

Similarly, insults told with a smile and kind tone are likely to be interpreted as positive, leaving the listener more confused than angered. How feelings are communicated often outweighs a speaker’s words concerning those feelings.

In any kind of professional environment, there’s potential for inconsistent messages when verbal and nonverbal communication aren’t aligned. This inconsistency can create muddled health care messages that can hinder a patient’s health literacy.

Written Communication Definition and Tips

Written communication is important in every professional industry. Written communication can be defined as any interaction that takes place with written words, whether handwritten or typed.

Effective writing skills can have a significant influence in professional practices, such as writing the following:

  • Emails
  • Department memos
  • Newsletters
  • Schedules
  • Monthly or quarterly reports
  • Research studies

Written communication plays a huge role in organizing and managing individuals and organizations. Professionals rely on written communication for instructions regarding their responsibilities.

Clear written communication in health care is particularly important when medical professionals track patient records and histories through written documentation. Whether doctors and nurses make handwritten notes or use electronic health records (EHRs), written words are integral to the doctor-patient dynamic. To ensure specialists and other caregivers can effectively assist a patient, health care professionals must use clear written communication.

Written communication allows doctors to monitor a patient’s progress over time, keeping track of how they progress. Using clear, unambiguous writing for health care forms, prescription directions and post-care instruction can also mitigate patient confusion and misinterpretation.

Unclear written communication can potentially inhibit patients’ health literacy. Because of this, strong written communication skills are key to caregiver-patient interactions.

Regardless of the field, workplace communication should be professional and formal. In business and health care settings, professionals are constantly engaging and interacting with each other. Because clinicians work in settings where lives are at risk, communication must be accurate, professional and effective.

Communicating Through Social Media

One topic in addressing different types of communication is the ever-increasing role of social media. Now more than ever, individuals communicate with one another across social networks. This can pose several benefits and drawbacks for professionals working in health care.

Benefits

  • Interacting with patients through social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, may help health care workers spread information faster and to a wider audience.
  • By posting accurate information online, they can help curb the spread of misinformation.

Drawbacks

  • Because health professionals work long days with patients in person, they have a limited amount of time to devote to interacting with patients on social media.
  • It can be difficult to maintain a professional level of communication on social media, as it tends to be more informal than verbal communication and written communication through email.

Communication Is Key

Effective communication skills benefit medical professionals and patients and can have a positive impact on health literacy. When patients have a strong foundation in health literacy, health care providers can deliver care that improves patient outcomes.

Medical professionals should exhibit the different types of communication in their day-to-day lives, from effective verbal and nonverbal communication to accurate written communication. If you’re interested in a leadership role in health care, explore how Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Health Communication program can help you master different types of communication. Discover how we can help you pursue your professional goals in health care.

Recommended Readings

Health Communication Specialist Salary and Job Responsibilities

Health Communication Theory: Essential Tools and Strategies

How Health Numeracy Can Help Promote Equal Health Care Access

Sources:

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Communication Between Clinicians

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Guide to Implementing the Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit

Forbes, “Can Social Media Have a Positive Impact on Global Healthcare?”

Forbes, “Communicating Professionally Still Matters”

Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, Verbal vs. Non-Verbal Communication

Inc., Written Communication

Lifesize, “Nonverbal Communication: How Body Language & Nonverbal Cues Are Key” 

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Verbal and Non-verbal Communication Skills Including Empathy During History Taking of Undergraduate Medical Students”

National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Health Literacy

NBC, “Fake News: Lies Spread Faster on Social Media Than Truth Does” 

Nursing Times, Communication Skills 3: Non-Verbal Communication

ReferralMD, “30 Healthcare Statistics That Keep Hospital Executives Up at Night” 

The Atlantic, “The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News”