Tailoring Communication to Fit Patients' Learning Needs


Effectively communicating with patients is essential for oncology nurses and can have a tangible impact on the success of treatment. But what is effective communication?

Effectively communicating with patients is essential for oncology nurses and can have a tangible impact on the success of treatment. But what is effective communication? Every patient is unique and their communication needs are different. Unfortunately for us, there is no “one size fits all” solution. By adhering to the following best practices, I hope you can more effectively communicate with your patients and positively impact their lives as they progress through their therapeutic journeys.

Identify goals and expectations

It is nearly impossible to work towards successful outcomes for patients without knowing what they want and expect. Identifying their treatment goal is the first step. Ask your patients, is their goal simply to beat cancer or to reach a certain personal milestone, such as a child’s wedding? The answer to that question will impact their treatment plan and your communication strategy.

Determine learning needs

Everybody has different learning needs, and your patients are no exception. Ask them how they best learn and retain information. Do they want phone calls, emails, texts, or mailings? Determining how they learn will help your patients retain the vital information you provide.

As a telehealth nurse educator for Pfizer’s Sutent In Touch Program, I work to educate and support patients taking Sutent, an oral drug used to treat certain types of cancer. Through our program, I talk to my patients at specific junctures of their treatment cycles, educating them on the medication, diagnosis and disease, important safety information, and tips for side effect management and adherence. I’m always careful to tailor these conversations around their specific learning needs. If a patient is a visual learner, for example, I send them materials that they can have in front of them while we talk.

Understand the healthcare team

Once you determine how to communicate with your patients, you then need to teach them how to best communicate with their healthcare team. First, have them create a team contact list. This ensures they aren’t scrambling to find information when needed.

Patients knowing who to direct a question to can be just as important as the question itself. Depending on the subject, the question may be best directed to the patient’s oncologist, nurse, primary care provider, or pharmacist. When working with new patients, encourage them to have conversations with their entire healthcare team to determine who their best resources are and how to best utilize them. In addition to talking to my patients about this, I distribute web-based resources that offer guidance for how to communicate with providers through the In Touch Program.

With many different parties involved in treatment, it’s vital to have a single point person or “captain,” who receives all updates. Not all team members communicate with each other, so, for example, a new oncology drug could impact your patient’s cholesterol medication. Talk to your patient about having a single provider aware of all aspects of treatment to help avoid confusion and complications.

Help Patients Prepare

Encourage your patients to keep a journal of their health experiences. Have them write down questions and keep track of side effects or symptoms. Before visits or calls to providers, remind patients to organize questions and take their journal with them so their notes are accessible. To make this simple, patients in our In Touch program receive a “Starter Kit” that includes a pill box, a journal, and information sheets on managing common side effects. If your patients feel something is not right, make sure they contact their provider. Let them know that seeking a second opinion can offer reassurance and in some cases, more options for their treatment plan.

Ask meaningful questions

Coach your patients on how to ask questions that yield meaningful answers. Try to ask questions that have tangible answers, such as “how will we know if this treatment is working?” as opposed to “will this treatment work?” If they don’t ask questions, their provider will assume they understand what they’ve been told.

Patty Migler, RN, BSN, OCN, CCM, is an Oncology Nurse Telehealth Educator for Pfizer’s Sutent In Touch Program, a service provided by Lash Group, a part of AmerisourceBergen.

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