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The importance of nurse-patient communication

by Lisa A. Yeager

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 many 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 to ensure 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 how effective communication skills enhance patient care and outcomes.

Why do doctors struggle to communicate with their patients?

The healthcare system in the US is busy, 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 precisely critical to the patient experience because they can spend more time interacting with them. Their role in healthcare is designed to complement the physician’s role. Doctors treat and manage acute symptoms, and nurses care for patients and ensure they heal. Additionally, some patients feel more comfortable communicating with nurses than physicians. As a result, they are more likely to confide in their nurses, and their treatment plan will be more effective.

Doctors do nothing to communicate, but they 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 immediately. This can be challenging when nurses attempt to treat them most effectively and ensure they aren’t worsening. Thankfully, nurses have often perfected their communication skills and can build rapport with their patients. As a result, patients usually feel more comfortable being honest about the symptoms they are experiencing. Sometimes, these symptoms are embarrassing, and patients think they are vulnerable when revealing them. Therefore, building a strong professional relationship with them is critical to providing 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 talk with their nurses. Nurses in this situation must do everything they can to draw information from their patients effectively, and many of them have developed clever tactics. When healthy, patients who speak clearly can often understand their nurses but cannot respond physically due to their symptoms. Nurses sometimes communicate with them in these situations by devising a blink or tapping system. For example, patients who blink or tap their finger twice might respond “yes” to a question, while tapping or blinking once is a “no”.

When patients cannot 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. Nurses can often detect changes and adjust their care accordingly, thanks to their intuition and observation skills.

Sometimes, nurses communicate with their patients’ families instead of the patients when they cannot 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 with their patients’ loved ones to ensure their wishes are fulfilled. Collaborating with the important people in their patients’ lives 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 reasons why nurse-patient communication is important, exploring them in more detail is necessary 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 reasons why nurse-patient communication plays an important role in patient recovery.


Effective nurse-patient communication is crucial for several reasons. However, before diving into the most important of them, let’s explore why nurses communicate with their patients – specifically, about the importance of education in patient recovery.

Nurses communicate with their patients to ensure that symptoms are addressed and 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 discuss their health conditions and what they must do once they return home. This might include continuing physical therapy or being aware of an increased fall risk for some patients. 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 before the illness hit full force? Many people are the first to know when something is happening in their body or mind. While nurses are important in catching issues that patients might miss, there is only so much they can do outside 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 can adjust their care accordingly, including notifying physicians if the reported symptoms are concerning.

Nurses also detect changes outside 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 these instances, nurses and the patient’s loved ones are typically the first to realize something is wrong. Once the issue is detected, nurses work with the patient’s care team to adjust their treatment to promote a healthy recovery better.

Better outcomes

One of the most obvious reasons patient-nurse communication matters is enhanced patient outcomes. When changes in health go undetected, patients might end up with additional illnesses or preventable injuries. As mentioned above, patients are often the first to know something is wrong, even when the cause doesn’t immediately appear 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 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 can adjust howrehowthem 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.

However, patients who have had good experiences with their nurses and prior healthcare 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 nursing students need to know before caring for patients. Before diving in, we’ll note that many of these are covered by reputable nursing programs. For example, a degree from an established academic institution such as Marymount University will likely help aspiring nurses develop the following communication skills.

With the advent of tools such as Zoom, more institutions are offering courses online. Universities like Marymount can now offer their online nursing program in Virginia and across empathetic listening

Patients often feel vulnerable relating their symptoms and concerns to other people. This can be compounded when they don’t feel their care provider understands or cares about their struggles. Nurses should be able to listen empathically to their patients, know where they’re coming from, and acknowledge their concerns even if they don’t think 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 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 can recognize and address potential issues 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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