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Hospital speak fails patients

Processing, Technology

Date: 22 September 2017

A fascinating conference about language in health care has highlighted the importance of interpersonal communication between patient and carers, and between health professionals when discussing patients.

At the inaugural Language in Health Care Forum at the ANU, researchers Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade, both from ANU’s School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, gave specific and real examples of how poor engagement has led to potential patient harm. The presenters also demonstrated how the flip side of this, good interpersonal engagement, was not only able to prevent potential harm occurring but ultimately reduce repeat admissions.

Their research concentrates on specific communication gaps, for instance when junior doctors hesitate to question or interject in conversations with senior staff, leading to poorer outcomes for patients. The two have researched this phenomena in different cultural settings and developed training programs, including communication protocols, to try and overcome cultural and organisational taboos.

Suzanne Eggins presents at the 'Language in Health Care Forum'Suzanne Eggins presents at the 'Language in Health Care Forum'

Hanna Suominen from the ANU and CSIRO also presented on the issue of communication in hospitals, particularly in regard to the critical process of shift handover.

She gave some confronting statistics, including the importance of electronic note taking – without it, the transfer of critical verbal information about a patient is estimated by researchers to be lost after three to five shift changes. And a second research estimate, that such failures in the flow of information are associated with 10% of preventable adverse events in hospital. Uptake of new technologies to prevent information loss was also frustratingly slow within Australian hospital settings, she told attendees.

Hanna SuominenHanna Suominen

CoEDL researchers also brought the forum up to date with the Florence project, a collaborative project to develop a smart, assistive communication device, to support people with dementia. Brooke-Mai Whelan from Bond University, who works with CoEDL senior researchers Helen Chenery and Janet Wiles told the forum that devices that could help people with dementia remember their medication, find missing items, and very importantly promote social interaction would assist the health system cope with the enormous increase in Australians expected to have dementia. She said currently in Australia there were approximately 400,000 people with dementia but this was predicted to grow to 1 million by the year 2056. 

Another update on a CoEDL project was given by Daniel Angus (University of Queensland). he spoke about the Discursis software package, which combines natural language processing algorithms with interactive visual outputs to help examine patterns of concept use in natural conversation. Current work includes introducing audio features into the analysis toolkit such as loudness, utterance/pause duration, perceptual pitch, and speech rate.

Photo at top: Brooke-Mai Whelan from Bond University describes the Florence project.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University