First steps to improving communication

Written by Vicky Burman on . Posted in Communication planning, Talking care

I recently gave a masterclass on internal communication at the Improving Patient Care conference. My main point was that poor communication and not listening to staff or making them feel engaged are often underlying factors when things go wrong in healthcare. On a very basic level, if people don’t understand what they’re meant to do, or have clear guidance to follow, then errors are inevitable.

One of the issues I raised was that organisations need to find out exactly what communication already happens, and what impact it has. After all, how can you improve if you don’t know what you’re currently doing, if there are any gaps, or if things aren’t working as well as they could be?

I’m a big believer in carrying out comprehensive communication audits as a worthwhile investment of time and effort. If you do it properly, you’ll involve a variety of staff, which is a chance to hear their views on communication generally as well as in relation to specific processes, responsibilities, activities and channels.

And just by carrying out this exercise, you are demonstrating a real commitment to taking communication seriously.

The detail you collect as part of your audit can help you prioritise areas for improvement and shape future communication plans (including to develop new channels) and content. You’ll have a much clearer idea of how everything fits together – or if it doesn’t. And it will highlight any particular challenges your organisation faces. For instance, one of the delegates at the conference flagged up problems his ambulance service had in briefing team members who were not just working different shifts but frequently on call-outs.

Your audit is an opportunity to ask questions and challenge assumptions about what communication is happening, how and why. Not only what you produce, for instance, but its specific purpose and whether it’s achieving that. Some activities may have evolved over time and no longer meet the needs of your organisation. You may be using channels for communication that are not accessible or relevant to your target audience. You may be missing out on new, more appropriate channels or ignoring existing, perhaps more traditional, ones like notice boards.

Do you have a clear idea of who has certain responsibilities for communication, and how much authority they have to put things into action? Where do responsibilities overlap or even conflict? What systems and processes are in place to support effective communication, such as cascading urgent information to staff? What resources do you have for communication, including skills that may be under-utilised?

It’s a lot to think about – but breaking down communication in this way (particularly if no one has done it before) gives you a solid base on which to build.