Health care professionals who cultivate strong writing and communication skills are well-positioned to achieve their professional goals. Yet these concepts often are not covered in-depth in medical school. That’s why clinicians, clinical investigators, researchers and allied health professionals can benefit from strengthening their skills in these areas, according to Jamie Robertson, PhD, MPH, director of innovation in Surgical Education at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who also serves as program director of Harvard Medical School’s Postgraduate Medical Education’s Effective Writing for Health Care.
Putting Communication Skills into Practice
Robertson points out that health care professionals with effective writing skills can leverage their ability to strategically communicate information and ideas. This can range from formulating well-thought-out articles, opinion pieces and blog posts geared for a mainstream audience to sharing cutting-edge research findings and data in medical journals. The benefits of understanding how to write well can also extend into clinical practice.
In fact, Robertson explains that knowing how to communicate clearly in writing can be an integral skill that translates well to providing high-quality patient care.
“In the operating room, there is a lot of evidence that when there are errors, these problems can often be traced to a breakdown in communication,” she says. The same is true in other areas of the hospital, as well as in outpatient settings, where a lack of communication often leads to a breakdown in safety processes and systems. This makes it essential for people in all aspects of the medical field to hone their writing and communication ability.
Tips for Effective Writing and Communication
For health care professionals who want to expand their writing and communication expertise, Robertson shares some common tips that can help them maximize their effectiveness:
- Be direct. “Whether you are writing an opinion article for publication, an email to your team or patient discharge instructions, it’s important to say what you mean directly,” Robertson stresses. She also points out that the more you can practice being direct in your everyday written and verbal communications, the more likely that this approach will become second nature so that you can pull out this skill in a crisis when you need it the most.
- Speak directly to your audience. It’s essential to know whom you are addressing in your written or verbal communication. Also, think about what they care about and how they might respond to your information. “For instance, it’s your responsibility as the writer to make it understandable for the reader,” Robertson says. “Think about the possible meanings people can take from your writing or conversation and be sure it’s clear what you mean to say.” While it’s easy to blame your reader for misunderstanding something, the onus is on you if you don’t position your information for your target audience and they then misunderstand. She stresses that at the end of the day, “it doesn’t matter what you write [or say]. It matters what the other person reads [or hears].”
- Revise—and revise again, if needed. Take a strategic approach to developing your messaging. In writing, this means developing a rough draft and looking for ways you can improve on your language to be sure your work is as impactful as possible. Take a similar approach to how you communicate verbally to be sure the information you share is meaningful and leads the conversation in the right direction. Before having a difficult conversation, try writing down what you want to say and practice reading it to see how it comes across and where you can strengthen your language or the points you are making. In addition, practicing challenging conversations in advance can help make them smoother and more effective.
- Pick a side and commit to it. All too often, health care providers are reluctant to commit to an opinion or idea because they want to get all the information and see all the possible explanations, Robertson says. Yet in order to communicate effectively, you need to have conviction in your beliefs and use evidence to support them so you can build a case. This means that rather than trying to agree with multiple opinions and weakening your positioning, lean into your expertise and take a stand for what you believe is right by making definitive statements. For example, in the OR, when you are communicating with your team, you might say: “I think my patient is having a pulmonary embolism.” Then you need to present your evidence, such as the patient’s vital signs, and then let someone else bring up the counterargument, Robertson explains.
- Practice makes perfect. Practicing effective communication often makes it second nature, so you will just get used to doing it automatically. Whether this means taking a little extra time writing emails, staff memos or discharge instructions, the more you write, the better your writing will become. Better writing can also help you organize your ideas more efficiently, so the benefits you gain from practicing can spill over into other areas of communication, too—from writing more effective emails to having more meaningful interactions with your colleagues.
- Ask for feedback. No matter how well you think you are communicating, there will always be areas for improvement. Robertson recommends identifying areas where you think you are strong and areas where you believe you can benefit from some outside guidance. Reach out to a colleague, mentor or supervisor and ask them for feedback on your writing or communication attempts. This can give you insights to build your skills and will help you become an even stronger communicator.
Benefits of Effective Communication
When you make the time to strengthen your writing and communication skills and consistently practice using them, you can establish an important foundation that you can build on to advance your professional goals throughout the course of your career in so many exciting new ways, Robertson stresses.
- Robertson, Jamie, PhD, MPH, Director of Innovation in Surgical Education, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Program Director, Harvard Medical School Post-Graduate Medical Education’s Effective Writing for Health Care, Zoom Interview April 2023.https://postgraduateeducation.hms.harvard.edu/certificate-programs/effective-writing-health-care/faculty