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The importance of nurse-patient communication

by Lisa A. Yeager

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Nurses are the unsung heroes of the medical system in the US. It can be a confusing industry to navigate, especially for patients experiencing severe symptoms. As many physicians have a large number of patients to see and don’t have time to spend hours with each of them, new or worsening symptoms can be overlooked. Nurses communicate with their patients directly and consistently and ensure that they don’t fall through the cracks. Through their conversations with their patients, nurses are perfectly positioned to build trust and rapport with them and make them feel comfortable enough to be honest about their health.

This article explores the importance of nurse-patient communication and the ways that effective communication skills enhance patient care and outcomes.

Why do doctors struggle to communicate with their patients?

The healthcare system in the US is a busy one, and a rising doctor shortage is making the profession more fast-paced than ever before. This doesn’t mean that patients don’t receive the care they need, but rather that their doctors might not have the time to talk with them as much as patients would like.

Nurses are critical to the patient experience precisely because they are able to spend more time interacting with them. Their role in healthcare is designed to complement the physician’s role. Doctors treat and take care of acute symptoms, and nurses take care of patients and ensure that they heal. Additionally, some patients feel more comfortable communicating with nurses than they do physicians. As a result, they are more likely to confide in their nurses and their treatment plan will be more effective as a result.

It is not that doctors are unwilling to communicate, but rather that they simply lack the time to do so. This is one reason why nurse-patient communication is so important.

What are the challenges of nurse-patient communication?

Patients don’t always feel comfortable being honest about their condition right off the bat. This can be challenging when nurses are attempting to treat them most effectively and ensure that they aren’t getting worse. Thankfully, nurses have often perfected their communication skills and are able to build rapport with their patients. As a result, patients often feel more comfortable being honest about the symptoms they are experiencing. Sometimes these symptoms are embarrassing, and patients feel vulnerable revealing them. Therefore, building a strong professional relationship with them is critical to providing them with effective care.

Other challenges in nurse-patient communication revolve around the patient’s practical ability to speak clearly and coherently. When patients are living with advanced dementia, or serious injuries, or are taking certain medications, they might not be able to speak with their nurses clearly. It is crucial that nurses in this situation do everything that they can to effectively draw information from their patients, and many of them have developed clever tactics to do so. Patients who, when healthy, are able to speak clearly can often understand their nurses, but simply be unable to respond physically due to their symptoms. In these situations, nurses sometimes communicate with them by devising a blink or tapping system. Patients who blink or tap their finger twice, for example, might be responding “yes” to a question, while tapping or blinking once is a “no”.

In situations where patients are not able to communicate even when they are healthy, nurses look at other ways to determine their physical condition. Patients might become irate when they are in pain, which tells nurses that something is wrong. Thanks to their intuition and observation skills, nurses are often able to detect changes and adjust their care accordingly.

Sometimes nurses communicate with their patients’ families instead of the patients themselves when they are unable to think clearly. Patients with brain damage or serious injuries that require them to take many medications or stay in a medically induced coma, for example, are often unable to make their own medical decisions. In these situations, nurses work together with their patient’s loved ones to ensure that their wishes are carried out. Being able to collaborate with the important people in their patient’s life is an important skill for nurses to master before they look for a job.

Why does nurse-patient communication matter?

While we’ve touched on a few of the reasons why nurse-patient communication is important, it is necessary to explore them in more detail to fully understand why nurses must learn to communicate effectively with their patients. From educating them to detecting otherwise imperceptible changes in behavior or symptoms, here are some of the reasons why nurse-patient communication plays an important role in the patient recovery process.


Effective nurse-patient communication is crucial for a number of reasons. Before diving into the most important of them, however, let’s explore the reasons why nurses communicate with their patients – and more specifically, about the importance of education in the patient recovery process.

Nurses not only communicate with their patients to ensure that symptoms are addressed, but they also maintain open lines of communication once they are ready to be discharged. One of the most important responsibilities they have is educating their patients. Nurses are often required to sit down with their patients and have a conversation with them about their health conditions and what they need to do once they return home. For some patients, this might include continuing with physical therapy or being aware of an increased fall risk. Other patients might be prone to a recurrence of their illness or injury. In these situations, nurses explain how to detect changes in their physical state and when they need to see a professional for assessment.

Without this conversation, patients are more likely to make avoidable mistakes and suffer avoidable harm. This level of communication is crucial to their recovery process and sets up patients for success and happy, healthy living.

Changes in health or behavior

Another significant reason why nurse-patient communication matters is also related to patient recovery. Think about the last time you were sick. Did you feel like you were ‘coming down’ with something prior to the illness hitting full force? Many people are the first to know when something is going on in their body or mind. While nurses are important in catching issues that patients might miss, there is only so much they can do from outside of the patient experience. This is one of the reasons why communication between nurses and their patients matters. Patients experience otherwise imperceptible changes in their health and are often able to verbalize them with their nurses. Nurses are then able to adjust their care accordingly, including notifying physicians if the reported symptoms are concerning.

Nurses are also key in detecting changes that occur outside of their patient’s body or mind. When patients shift from being cooperative to aggressive and resistant, they might be experiencing a change in their health. Medication might be to blame, or they might be experiencing more pain or confusion than normal. In all of these instances, nurses and the patient’s loved ones are typically the first to realize that something is wrong. Once the issue is detected, nurses work with the patient’s care team to adjust their treatment to better promote a healthy recovery.

Better outcomes

One of the most obvious reasons why patient-nurse communication matters is enhanced patient outcomes. When changes in health go undetected, patients might end up with additional illnesses or injuries that were preventable. As we mentioned above, patients are often the first to know that something is wrong, even when the cause doesn’t immediately show up on basic tests. By the time they become easily detectable via the patient’s vitals, these issues have often progressed to the point where treating them is more difficult and can interfere with treatment for the patient’s other conditions.

Nurses who communicate with their patients typically build a rapport with them. They gain the trust of their patients and help them feel comfortable about expressing their concerns and health changes, even when they might be embarrassed about them. This, in turn, leads to better patient outcomes because avoidable issues are caught right away, before they have time to do damage. Additionally, nurses who communicate closely with their patients are able to adjust the way that they care for them based on their preferences and needs. A more effective care plan and treatment style can also enhance patient outcomes and improve patient satisfaction with the care they receive.

Willingness to seek follow-up care

The last reason we’ll cover regarding the importance of nurse-patient communication is inspiring a willingness to seek follow-up care. Patients with terrible experiences in the medical industry tend to avoid speaking with professionals as much as possible. When they feel as though their concerns were ignored and they suffered harm. As a result, patients will be far less likely to bring up new issues with their physicians or nurse practitioners. This is because they don’t want to repeat the unpleasant experience. Consequently, their health suffers.

Patients who have had good experiences with their nurses and prior healthcare, however, are far more likely to be proactive with their care. Instead of hiding problems until they become unavoidable, patients will generally be open and honest about the symptoms they are experiencing and the concerns they have. This often leads to better outcomes and the prevention of further harm.

Effective nurse-patient communication improves patient satisfaction and ensures that patients feel more comfortable reaching out for help in the future.

What communication skills do nurses need to master?

Are you wondering what skills you should focus on while completing your higher education? If so, we have collected some of the most important communication skills that nursing students need to know before they begin caring for patients. We’ll note before diving in that many of these are covered by reputable nursing programs. A degree from an established academic institution such as Marymount University, for example, will likely help aspiring nurses develop the following communication skills.

With the advent of tools such as Zoom, more and more institutions are now offering their courses online, so now, universities such as Marymount can offer their online nursing program in Virginia, and also across the US.

Empathetic listening

Patients often feel vulnerable relating their symptoms and concerns to other people. This can be compounded when they don’t feel as though their care provider understands or cares about their struggles. Nurses should be able to listen empathically to their patients, understand where they’re coming from, and acknowledge their concerns even if they don’t think that they are serious. The sheer action of reaching out to a nurse merits respectful interaction.

Non-verbal communication

One of the most important communication skills that nurses should employ is analyzing non-verbal communication. Patients can say a lot by saying nothing at all, and nurses with effective observation skills can pick up on their physical and, sometimes, mental state by being watchful of their reactions. From indicating stress to subconsciously favoring a certain body part, the best nurses are able to recognize potential issues and address them respectfully.


Are you interested in becoming a nurse? If so, the best way to get started is by finding a reputable nursing program near you. Keep the information above in mind as you navigate the world of academia and find the perfect educator for your goals.


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