Talking the talk


Having a positive, long-term health impact on your patients can be boosted by ensuring you use the right language and approach in your role as communicator, writes Cassandra Zaina, FACP.

Have you ever stopped to think of the role you play in influencing the long-term health outcomes of your patients? We are often focused on the short-term results of an episode of treatment, but how do we create long-term change to help our patients achieve healthy habits, improve resilience and health literacy to avoid injury into the future?

Physiotherapists are well placed to do this and can have significant, positive long-term health impacts on their patients and the community at large. This all starts with the relationship we establish with the patient, the expectations we set and the language we use to inspire positive changes in health behaviour. As physiotherapists, language is important—content, objectivity, words and delivery, as well as how we listen and reframe our patient’s thoughts and beliefs. These components are combined with our understanding of the patient— their learning style, concerns, current stage of change and other factors, in developing an effective communication strategy.

In the work injury scheme, our communication skills are paramount. We have the opportunity to work with a varied team to assist the patient back to work, and we are often presented with situations and conversations we may not have been exposed to before. Because of this, we may feel unprepared to manage these situations and conversations.

Working with such a varied team means we need to know when to adjust our language as treating practitioners depending on our audience—using technical language, as we do with health practitioners, may not work when using the same language with a patient, an employer or claims manager, where general explanations may be more appropriate.

Communication is often something we just ‘do’—but how often do we consider the language we use with our patients and the treating team, and how has it been received? George Bernard Shaw said ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’.

‘Communicator’ is one of the seven roles in APA’s Physiotherapy Competence Framework. It is therefore recognised as a vital function, one in which physiotherapists should continue to develop their competency throughout their career. This is because communication is not as simple as it sounds. I encourage you to continue to upskill yourselves in communication and seek the various resources currently available to us.

If you are heading to the TRANSFORM Conference in Adelaide this month, visit the various exhibitors such as ReturnToWorkSA, which have a range of tools to assist the development of your communication skills. Our words and stories can weave and create change. This is a chance to consider the role of physiotherapists as communicators, and how we influence the long-term health outcomes of our patients.

Cassandra Zaina is a Specialist Occupational Health Physiotherapist (as awarded by the Australian College of Physiotherapists 2010) and physiotherapy advisor at ReturnToWorkSA


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