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Valuing Good Communication

Most programs provide training on the importance of good communication. Then the class ends and everybody goes back to work and forgets all about it.

Too bad, because poor communication leads to all sorts of systems problems. A few real-life examples:

  • Caller goes elsewhere for treatment because staff didn’t call back promptly.
  • Therapist stops referring because counselors are late with discharge summaries.
  • Patient stops coming to sessions because she thinks nobody understands her.
  • Insurance company denies claims due to insufficient documentation.

Oddly enough, few programs engage in any systematic attempt to promote really good communication throughout the organization. Most offer periodic training, and maybe a motivational poster in the break room. You can imagine how well that works.

In practice, staff find themselves needing to communicate with two distinct categories of people: consumers and customers. The consumer is the person who receives treatment, while the customer is someone outside the program — the referral source, for example, or a managed care organization.

Consumers want to be listened to, ‘heard’ by staff, usually via a personal interaction. The issue doesn’t much matter; whatever it may be, the consumer expects staff to be attentive and to respond promptly, and reacts badly when they don’t.

Customers on the other hand focus on factual information provided in a timely manner. An insurance company wants proof of value (are we getting our money’s worth?) Court staff need to meet Court requirements. A therapist who refers a patient wants updates on patient progress. These folks are likely to want information delivered in a prescribed format, according to a deadline.

It doesn’t sound that complicated, but staff struggle with it. Why? Ask them, and here’s what they say:

  • There’s not enough time in the day. Other duties take priority.
  • Everybody wants something different (especially true for written communication). A referent needs a progress report, an attorney a letter for the Court, the Utilization Review staff needs info for a review, the boss is waiting for your CQI input… it’s all information, of course, but not the same information.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially if you’re not all that organized in the first place. Balls get dropped. Complaints roll in– or worse, the person on the other end doesn’t bother to complain, just stops doing business with you.

What’s the solution? Create an organizational culture that values good communication, and make sure your staff have the tools to provide it.