Communication Currents

Tailor-made Training in the Workplace

April 1, 2010
Health Communication, Organizational Communication

It is widely accepted that communication practices in professional relationships have many effects. In health care, for example, effective two-way communication between patients and professionals has a significant influence on patients' satisfaction, knowledge, and adherence to treatments. Similarly, pharmacists also have the great responsibility of helping people to maintain good health. By taking an active approach in patient counseling situations, pharmacists can help customers select appropriate medication, and motivate them toward better medical care and health outcomes. It is important, therefore, to ensure that pharmacists are able to identify the individual needs of each customer, to communicate effectively with them, and to value customers' own perspectives.

However, professional pharmacists do not always have the necessary communication skills to achieve these goals. To remedy this, pharmacists need specialized communication skills courses. Most colleges and universities offer general education courses that focus on basic communication skills, such as public speaking. These courses are effective in preparing students generally, but do not necessarily provide an adequate link to the tasks that students will be required to accomplish in the workplace.

Recently, more attention has been focused on developing discipline-specific or profession-specific communication skills. Such an approach allows courses to be precisely designed to promote the development of students' communication skills within their own profession. There are tailor-made courses for pharmacy students, for example, where students rehearse specialized communication skills both in classroom settings and in real work situations.

Since learning communication skills is a long-lasting and target-oriented process, it is essential that students have opportunities for repetition, instructional teaching, and individually structured feedback. To foster the development of the communication skills required in professional situations, learning events are most effective when they are tied to authentic work situations. In work places, students familiarize themselves with the communication competencies required for their work task.

Another important reason for using profession-specific communication training is that it creates an opportunity to foster learning between students and professionals. It is well known that students value the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals by observing them at work, but unfortunately there is also a danger of uncritical imitating of staff. With carefully produced learning events and processes it is possible to systematically develop the professional competences of both parties so that students and professionals learn how to communicate more effectively.

Accordingly, a profession-specific method for teaching undergraduate pharmacy students has been developed in Finland. In the Finnish education system, there are two pharmaceutical qualifications: the master of pharmacy and the bachelor of pharmacy degrees, both of which include a six month practical training period in a community pharmacy. Since the practical training period is one of the largest study modules in the pharmacy degree, it provides a remarkable potential for learning discipline-specific communication skills in real work situations. This discipline-specific teaching method was developed jointly by speech communication and pharmacy teachers. Students first rehearse the core communication skills required by pharmacists in patient counseling role plays supervised by the teachers. Then when students move into their practical training period, practicing pharmacists-as-mentors supervise students' training by observing, analyzing, and giving individual feedback usingguidelines drawn up by the teachers. Hence, students undergo a continuous training process, including focused feedback through both the university and practical training studies.

The main aim of the training process is to provide students with an active approach in counseling by asking questions and listening, along with an understanding of the important role of tailored instructions based on the individual needs and treatments of each customer. Students rehearse discussions with customers concerning the customer's symptoms and experiences of treatments, knowledge, use of drugs and check ups, for example. In order to obtain the necessary information and to improve the social interaction, students practice asking appropriate questions, concentrating on the customer, and also taking into consideration the issues raised by the customer. They also practice explaining and justifying their instructions, and motivating the customer for better medical care and commitment to the treatments, for example.

Both students and practicing pharmacists find that the specialized training method in authentic patient counseling situations helps students to learn what is expected in terms of communication skills in their daily work. Students especially value individual feedback, including suggestions for future development, from experienced professionals, and opportunities to rehearse in real work situations. They consider the feedback to be the most valuable aspect of their practice training: they prefer constructive feedback and want an analytical approach to communication between staff and students, and they value encouragement on their progress.

On the other hand, both students and mentors seem to learn from each others. For example, professional practitioners value students' new ideas and they become more aware of their own routines and communication practices when supervising. They learn to observe interpersonal communication consciously and to realize that discipline-specific communication skills play a significant role in their daily work. Hence, practical training has a huge potential for teaching existing professionals as well by using professionally tailored teaching methods. This is a new direction for the discipline-oriented communication education which should be emphasized more in future in order to develop discipline-specific learning processes in different fields.