3 ways to better communicate with patients via signposting


Imagine driving through an unfamiliar area, and there are no street signs. How would you feel? Frustrated? Scared? Angry? You would feel these emotions because you had no direction or guidance. Patients need direction when they enter the health care system. Signposting is a tool to provide direction.

On the streets, there are posts that have signs. They provide direction; they tell us where we are going. Hence, the name, “signposting.” As health care professionals, we need to provide the same service to patients.

We experience signposting every day. When we are in a store, the aisles are marked, so we know what items are in each area. The stores provide direction. When we make a call and are put on hold, we often hear, for example, “Your call will be answered in less than five minutes.” This phone message relieves our anxiety, so we don’t have to wonder if we’ll be on hold for hours. The phone message provides direction.

Below are several examples of signposting in a health care setting.

1. New patient about to have a complete physical examination. When the patient first walks in the door, briefly explain what they will experience. For example, you can say, “First, we need you to fill out these forms, then an associate/team member will speak to you. You then will be seen by Dr. X (or NP/PA). You will be here approximately xx minutes/hours, even though that time frame may vary.” Once the physician (or NP/PA) meets the patient, an overview is helpful. For example, “Today, I will first talk to you about your medical history, then I will perform a physical examination. The physical examination consists of …”

2. Outpatient having a scan. A common issue for patients undergoing scans is that they want the scan results immediately. Many times, they will ask the technician for the results. The technician tells them a radiologist will review the scan, create a report and then they will be told the results. The patients then become frustrated and angry. Signposting comes to the rescue in these situations. When a patient first arrives for the scan, they need to be told what will happen during their appointment. For example, the patient can be told, “Today, you will first need to fill out this form and then you will be taken in for your scan. After the technician takes the scan, the information will be sent to a radiologist who will review the scan and create a report. Within x days, you will be notified of the results. What questions do you have?” Of course, this communication tool doesn’t prevent every patient from insisting on immediate test results, however, it does lower the incidence of such occurrences.

3. Emergency department patient. Patients know they will have to wait in the ED. However, their anxiety is reduced when they are given some general time frame. An ED patient typically hears this statement, “Please have a seat. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.” Instead, add a dose of signposting to give the patient direction, such as by saying, for example, “Please have a seat, and we should be able to see you within 20-30 minutes. Keep in mind that time frame could change. We will alert you of any changes.” Once an ED patient is seen by a health care professional, continue the signposting. For example, you can say to a patient, “The doctor has ordered blood work and a CT scan. Once the blood sample is taken, we’ll have the results in X minutes/hours. After the scan is done, we’ll have the results in x minutes/hours. Keep in mind that time frame could change. We will keep you posted of any changes.”

Signposting an easy-to-implement communication strategy to give patients direction and give you peace of mind through less-stressed patients.

Edward Leigh is founder and director, Center for Healthcare Communication.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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