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How to Better Communicate with Patients While Wearing a Mask

By Tim Callahan28 Oct 2020

Face masks are essential to slowing the spread of COVID-19, along with social distancing and hand-washing. But given healthcare professionals rely on verbal and non-verbal methods of communication to promote a trust relationship with patients, face coverings in a clinical setting can present challenges.

While necessary, face masks do create an impediment when it comes to how listeners GettyImages-1223449799understand speech. Even those who are not hearing-impaired often rely on lip-reading and facial expressions to understand spoken words in a busy environment full of background noise — like a hospital. 

Furthermore, non-verbal cues promote trust, understanding, and adherence from patients.

Here’s some helpful background information and several tips:

4 Cornerstones of Empathetic Communication

Healthcare communication professionals have developed strategies to help clinicians connect with patients in new ways and overcome the hurdles a face mask creates. These strategies are rooted in four cornerstones of empathetic communication, according to MedPage Today. They include:

  • Immediacy: Minimizing the gap in psychological distancing
  • Convergency: The perception of desired similarities
  • Responsiveness: Communicating a genuine concern
  • Affiliativeness: Openly conveying authentic warmth and friendliness

Top Strategies for Communicating With Patients While Wearing a Face Mask

Face coverings are critical for the health and safety of both you and your patient. But this protection shouldn’t threaten your ability to build trust and rapport. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Focus on what you can control
    Focus on positioning yourself toward your patient, maintain friendly eye-contact, and use hand gestures to make your point. 
  • Use active listening
    Listening is as important to establishing trust as making your own voice heard. Hold eye contact while your patient speaks, nod, and summarize their point back to them to show you were paying attention.
  • Practice natural eye contact
    You want to indicate empathy — not dominance. So you look them in the eye naturally, but don’t force it or stare. Use eye contact to indicate conversational turns, i.e. the patient’s turn to speak, or to express appropriate emotion.
  • Consider your body language: A relaxed posture puts your patient at ease while a shrug can indicate a lack of understanding of what is being discussed. Be sure to use simple hand gestures also help make a point.
  • Beware of your vocal tone: Even if your words are muffled, you can still use your vocal tone, pitch and volume to help get your messages across. Be sure to speak slowly and carefully. Project, but don’t yell.
  • Validate patients’ feelings
    Acknowledgment, support and encouragement are hallmarks of empathy. Ask your patient about their feelings if you don’t have a clear understanding. The more empathy you express, the more likely the patient will be forthcoming and open with you.
  • Mirror your patient’s communication style
    Matching your patient’s verbal and non-verbal style builds a connection in understanding, helps foster trust, and aids in conveying sensitivity. Gauge your patient’s body language, gesturing, nodding, conversational manner, eye contact and make an effort to mirror their style. 

Face masks likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, and the sooner we normalize masked communication, the better. Body language, gesturing, posture and the right amount of eye contact are important in promoting empathy and kindness to your patients and will help them feel more comfortable.

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