Trauma-Informed Communication: Building Trust in Patient Interactions

As medical or mental healthcare clinicians, our ability to communicate efficiently and empathetically with our patients is pivotal. This becomes even more significant when we navigate complicated territory such as […]


As medical or mental healthcare clinicians, our ability to communicate efficiently and empathetically with our patients is pivotal. This becomes even more significant when we navigate complicated territory such as trauma. With studies suggesting that nearly 70% of adults have experienced at least one type of traumatic event in their lives (National Council on Mental Health), trauma-informed communication (TIC) forms an essential part of the healthcare paradigm. This blog aims toward enlightening clinicians about the ethos of TIC and guiding actionable ways to foster trust and transparency in patient interactions.

Understanding Trauma

Trauma, be it physical or emotional, can have resounding effects on an individual’s mental and physical health. The unpredictable and invasively destabilizing nature of trauma shapes an individual’s responses toward healthcare. They may experience fear, suspicion, or feel overwhelmed, impacting their adherence to treatment and overall healthcare outcomes. Hence, as clinicians, it’s crucial to recognize and respond to traumatic events effectively.

Defining Trauma-Informed Communication

TIC forms an evidential offering to both medical and mental health services. It extends beyond the basic premise of understanding a patient’s history and acknowledges the deep-seated physical, emotional and psychological effects of trauma. It places emphasis on trust, transparency, collaboration, empowerment, and taps into the idea of ‘do no harm.’

Building the Foundation: Understanding the Principles of TIC

To weave TIC into our practices, we need to recognize its foundational concepts. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines six primary principles of a trauma informed approach:

1. Safety: Ensuring both physical and emotional safety.
2. Trustworthiness and Transparency: Developing trust with clear and open communication.
3. Peer support: Encouraging survivor collaboration and interaction.
4. Collaboration and Mutuality: Treating as equals and allowing shared responsibility.
5. Empowerment, Voice and Choice: Empowering and validating patient experiences.
6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues: Acknowledge the role of cultural contexts and biases.

Now that we’ve understood the framework of TIC, let’s explore how we can adopt these principles in our day-to-day interactions.

Effective Trauma-Informed Communication Strategies

  1. Patient-Centered Approach: A patient-centered approach is key to establishing each patient’s sense of self and maintaining dignity. Validate their experiences and let the patient fully share their subjective experience and tell you what they need/want help with.
  2. Active Listening: Active listening allows the patients to express their narratives openly. Validating their feelings encourages them to elaborate further and helps you formulate an effective care approach.
  3. Avoid Triggering Language: Sensitive questions or phrases can often initiate traumatic responses. Hence, be mindful of your language, avoid direct questions, and provide them with the option to decline to answer.
  4. Empathic Reflection: Express genuineness in your responses. A combination of empathy and being non-judgemental can boost the patient’s self-esteem and compliance with treatment because empathic, non-judgemental comments help build rapport, which build trust.
  5. Transparency: Be transparent about any procedure, test, or medication. Explain their purpose and potential side-effects. The more informed they are, the less threatening the medical world becomes to them. This helps patients have choice in their healthcare.

Implementing Trauma-Informed Communication

An environment that embraces TIC needs to be supported at all levels of an organization. It requires constant learning, regular training, and continuous performance feedback to foster a culture of empathetic communication. Hiring staff with a competency in TIC or investing in staff development for TIC skills are also beneficial.

Acting on TIC

Now that we understand the principles and strategies of Trauma-Informed Communication, it’s time to implement them in our practice with the following steps:

  1. Reflect: Start by reflecting on your current communication style. Identify areas where you can integrate TIC principles.
  2. Educate: Enhance your understanding of trauma and trauma responses. Leverage resources, attend webinars, or enroll in related courses.
  3. Practice: Practice TIC in every conversation. Be it a formal meeting or an informal chat, being empathic and listening actively can reshape the narrative.
  4. Seek Feedback: Encourage patients and peers to give their feedback. Use it to refine your approach.
  5. Ensure Follow-ups: Timely follow-ups and so-called ‘check-ins’ make the patient feel valued and taken care of. It builds trust in your commitment to their care.
  6. Establish care plan: Have a written summary of the care plan with the patient, and ensure they understand it, give them an opportunity to ask questions or express concerns.

Understanding trauma-informed communication is far from an overnight process; it requires continuous efforts and patience. However, the investment would undoubtedly ensure improved patient-clinician relationships, positive healthcare outcomes and contributes profoundly to holistic patient care. As clinicians, let’s practice TIC to cultivate an environment where patients feel heard, understood, and genuinely cared for.

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

Written by AI & Reviewed by Clinical Psychologist: Yoendry Torres, Psy.D.

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