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Difficult conversations: Improving communication skills and relational abilities in health care*

Meyer, Elaine C., PhD, RN; Sellers, Deborah E., PhD; Browning, David M., MSW, BCD; McGuffie, Kimberly, EdM; Solomon, Mildred Z., EdD; Truog, Robert D., MD

Pediatric Critical Care Medicine: May 2009 - Volume 10 - Issue 3 - p 352-359
doi: 10.1097/PCC.0b013e3181a3183a
Clinical Investigations

Background: Communication skills and relational abilities are essential core competencies that are associated with improved health outcomes, better patient adherence, fewer malpractice claims, and enhanced satisfaction with care. Yet, corresponding educational opportunities are sorely underrepresented and undervalued.

Objective: To evaluate the impact of an interdisciplinary experiential learning paradigm to improve communication skills and relational abilities of pediatric critical care practitioners.

Design: Prepost design, including baseline, immediate follow-up, and 5-month self-report questionnaires.

Setting: Tertiary care pediatric hospital, Children's Hospital Boston.

Participants: One hundred six interdisciplinary clinicians with a range of experience levels and clinical specialties.

Measurements: Participants rated their sense of preparation, communication and relational skills, confidence, and anxiety. Open-ended questions asked participants about lessons learned, aspects of the training they found most helpful, and suggestions to improve the training.

Main Results: When questions were posed in a yes/no format, participants were nearly unanimous (93% to 98%) that the training had improved their sense of preparation, communication skills, and confidence immediately after and 5 months posttraining. Ninety percent of participants reported improvements in establishing relationships immediately after the training and 84% reported improvements 5 months posttraining. Eighty-two percent reported reduced anxiety immediately after training and 74% experienced reduced anxiety 5 months posttraining. On Likert items, 70% estimated their preparation had improved; 40% to 70% reported improvements in communication skills, confidence and anxiety, and 15% in relationship skills. Four qualitative themes emerged: identifying one's existing competence; integrating new communication skills and relational abilities; appreciating interdisciplinary collaboration; and valuing the learning itself.

Conclusions: A 1-day experiential learning paradigm focused on communication skills and relational abilities was highly valued, clinically useful, and logistically feasible. Participants reported better preparation, improved communication and relational skills, greater confidence, and reduced anxiety. Participants deepened their understanding of family perspectives, recognized valuable existing competencies, and strengthened their commitment to interdisciplinary teamwork.

From the Division of Critical Care Medicine (ECM, RDT), Children's Hospital Boston, Boston, MA; Institute for Professionalism and Ethical Practice (ECM, DMB, RDT), Boston, MA; Departments of Psychiatry (ECM), Anaesthesia (Pediatrics) (DMB, MZS, RDT), and Social Medicine (MZS), Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; Education Development Center, Inc. (DES, DMB, KM, MZS, RDT), Boston, MA.

Supported, in part, by Argosy Foundation and The Center for the Critically Ill Child.

The authors have not disclosed any potential conflicts of interest.

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©2009The Society of Critical Care Medicine and the World Federation of Pediatric Intensive and Critical Care Societies