Essential communication skills for pharmacists

Interacting with patients
The main skills required to interact successfully with patients are active listening, questioning, responding and explaining. Each of these skills is explained below.

Active listening

Listening is more than simply hearing a person speak to you. It should be an active process, ensuring not only that all messages are received but also that the speaker knows that the listener has understood the message. For pharmacists, this is particularly important when talking with patients. It is essential that the patient knows that the pharmacist is listening to them and taking their situation and opinions seriously.

Patients – who may not be feeling well or may be shocked and/or concerned by a diagnosis, for
example – are easily intimidated by someone in a ‘white coat’; by demonstrating good listening skills, the pharmacist can help the patient to feel much more comfortable and relaxed about their situation and the means by which it can be resolved. This in turn will help the pharmacist to obtain more useful information from the patient, as the patient will find it easier to share such information relating to themselves, enabling the pharmacist to fulfil their role more effectively. 

It is not unusual for a patient to give the pharmacist information that they may feel unable to share with their doctor or nurse, as many patients perceive pharmacists to be more understanding and approachable. The three main techniques involved in active listening are:
• maintaining eye contact – so that the speaker can see you are paying attention
• acknowledging what the speaker says – by suitable body language such as nodding and verbal agreement
• summarising or paraphrasing what has just been said (e.g. using a phrase such ‘So, what you’re saying is.’).


Pharmacists need to use effective questioning in order to obtain information from patients, usually relating to  their medication. It is important not to ask leading questions, as patients will sometimes just agree or go along with the lead, because they are afraid to get the question ‘wrong’. For instance, when trying to identify
which inhaler a patient uses when the patient doesn’t know the name of the inhaler, the pharmacist might want to find out what colour it is, as different types have a specific colour. A leading question would be, ‘Is your inhaler blue?’ However, the patient may be tempted to reply ‘yes’ to this as it might appear to be the
‘right’ answer. A better way to ask is, ‘What colour is your inhaler?’ Without giving the patient a colour, they are not prompted, and will hopefully remember what colour the inhaler actually is. This type of questioning also makes it is easier and more likely for a patient to admit that they don’t know the answer.

Getting accurate information with regard to a medication history is essential, as this will result in the patient receiving the correct medication while they are in hospital. In this example, if the information regarding the patient’s inhalers is not correct, the wrong medications might be prescribed, resulting in a loss of control of the patient’s asthma, and therefore the potential for a life-threatening asthma attack to occur. 
There are three main types of questioning.

• Open questions have no right or wrong answer and there is usually more than one possible answer, for example, ‘Please describe . . .?’ or ‘Tell me about. . .?’ Open questions are used to obtain general information. An open question may be followed by a closed or probing question based on part of the answer, to obtain more precise or detailed information.
• Closed or convergent questions home in or converge on specific information. Examples are questions that have a right or wrong answer such as, ‘What is your name?’ or questions that are answered with yes or no:
‘Are you John Smith?’
• Probing questions are used to obtain specific information. They may be used to clarify previous answers, or to elaborate on information obtained by open questioning. For example: ‘Please tell me about the medication you take’ might be followed by, ‘What is the name of the tablet you take for your high blood pressure?’

Responding and explaining

Using active listening techniques (see above) will help demonstrate respect, understanding and empathy with the patient. This in turn will help you earn the trust and respect of the patient, and build an effective professional relationship with them, enabling you to do your job as a pharmacist more effectively. It also is important to be confident when talking with patients, so they have confidence in what you tell them.
It is unlikely that a patient will trust a health professional who is hesitant or doesn’t appear confident about what they are talking about.

When explaining something to a patient, such as how to use an inhaler, it is essential to use language and concepts that the patient will understand. Technical words and jargon should never be used, as many patients will not understand such terms, and they might not have the confidence to ask for a further explanation. The level at which information can be pitched varies between individuals, and with experience it is possible to assess how well a patient understands the information you have given them. It is often necessary to check that a patient understands information you have given them, but in doing so it is important not to patronise them. A good method of checking understanding is to ask the patient to explain something
back to you, for instance, after explaining how to use an inhaler, ask the patient to explain it back to you.

Interacting with other health professionals

Talking with other health professionals is very different from talking with patients. This can be quite intimidating for the pre-registration or newly qualified pharmacist, especially when talking to doctors, as they might ask questions or require explanations that the pharmacist may not be prepared for. This may be because of lack of experience or specialist knowledge of the clinical speciality in question, and becomes less
common as a pharmacist becomes more experienced. The principal key, therefore, to successful interactions with doctors and other health professionals is preparation.

If you need to get information from other people, think about what you want to know, and then the questions you need to ask to get that information. If necessary, write the questions down, so you don’t forget any of them, and then arrange your questions in a logical order. Having to go back to a person repeatedly because you’ve forgotten something is embarrassing and is likely to annoy them! If you are talking to a prescriber about a change in treatment, make sure you can justify your suggestion with evidence, and can also supply prescribing information for the alternative choice of treatment, thereby proffering a solution to the issue rather than barriers to successful treatment of the patient.


Presentations areanimportant part ofmanypharmacy undergraduate programmes, and continue to be part of the role of the qualified pharmacist, particularly in primary care and hospital settings. This section discusses how to plan a presentation, decide on content, design slides and use appropriate body language and voice skills to make a good presentation.

by Umaee
source: Foundation in Pharmacy Practice
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