One Man’s Legacy: Improving Communication in O&P

Communication is important in every aspect of life, as a basic function of human relations, according to Scott D. Silver, BA, MSEd, CO/LO, president and owner of Silver Lining Seminars Inc., an education and consultation seminar business for communication and interpersonal skill development in health care, and lecturer in the communication department at Western Washington University. In many fields, especially in health care, the ability to communicate with others — patients who depend on health care practitioners for their care — is an integral part of the job.

Dealing with O&P

Some O&P practitioners have developed one way to communicate with their patients, while some work on trial-and-error, learning to interact with each specific patient one by one. Others have sought mentors to impart their experiences and advice.

Silver learned a great deal about treating patients from his mentor, Oscar Silverman, owner of North Shore Orthopedics.

“Oscar knew how to talk to people,” he said. “He knew how to make every single patient feel important. He knew how to separate the needs of every single patient, and he took the time, no matter how long it had to be.”

Scott Silver
All images reprinted with permission of Chris Hovorka.

Silverman, he said, was one who was born with the ability to comfort his patients.

“It came naturally to him,” Silver told O&P Business News. “He showed me how this can be a great profession. He will always be the person that I owe everything to, in this profession.”

In his thesis in post-secondary education and interdisciplinary studies at Northwestern University, Silver analyzed orthotics and prosthetics on several levels, including practitioners’ communication skills and their ability to work together as a united profession with other disciplines. He found that, as a community, O&P would not qualify as healthy because of its lack of growth, education and unified goals.

“If we are going to move further with research, with development, with the paradigms of our profession, we need to be able to understand more than what comes from just an undergraduate degree,” Silver said. “We need to be able to understand research and its componentry, and interdisciplinary techniques. We need to be able to communicate with other professions, and understand cultural, gender and generational differences.

Teaching communication

One of the reasons for the difference in O&P education versus other types of health care education is that O&P educators tend to have degrees in O&P and not in educating, Silver said. To develop a comprehensive curriculum, educators should have formal, educational backgrounds in teaching.

Ideally, he wanted to see O&P educators receiving master’s degrees in education — and preferably in a specialty education field — before teaching O&P students. Or they could take college or graduate level education courses, giving them a solid foundation in teaching, developing curricula and testing.

“Every practitioner is an ambassador for O&P,” he said. “You want your ambassadors to be as educated as possible.”

As a result of a lack of formal communication education, Silver pointed out that many O&P business owners never received proper training in dealing with people. Without that ability to communicate, those owners risk alienating both their employees and their patients.

The ability to communicate is a necessary skill in every college major. Just as students are required to complete basic writing comprehension courses as part of the core curriculum, they should take at least one basic communication course.

O&P practitioners will need to build relationships not only with their patients, but with their employees and peers, third party payers, and manufacturer contacts. Determining the needs of each of these groups early on, and learning to anticipate them, will make interaction that much easier in the future.

Addressing patient differences

Knowing how to interact with different kinds of people affects both practitioners’ businesses and patients’ level of care. O&P practitioners should realize that each patient’s diagnosis is as individual as the patient. Each method of treatment, therefore, should follow that same notion.

Two patients needing the same orthosis or prosthesis will not adapt to it in the same way. Silver recommended setting up an introductory meeting when working with new patients, to determine their needs and expectations. He might have offered a tour of his facility as well, showing the patient where the orthosis or prosthesis would be created.

In addition to individual patient circumstances, practitioners should consider differences between caring for men and women, generational differences among patients, various cultural needs that might affect care, and socioeconomic issues, such as an inability to pay for treatment or a lack of insurance coverage.

Scott Silver worked to teach health care professionals the benefit of effective communcation
Silver worked to teach health care professionals the benefit of effective communcation.

Knowing how to successfully deal with these different groups of people should suppress most conflicts before they even begin. When conflicts do arise — between a practitioner and a patient, with third party payers, or among employees and peers — a practitioner with training in communication issues is better equipped to get favorable results.

Silver not only knew how to resolve conflicts, but when to start them. In several situations with referring physicians, he pointed out mistakes those physicians had made in their orthotic recommendations.

He phoned the physicians and talked through their requests, the biomechanics of each particular orthosis, and the intended goal for the patient. In those cases, the physicians thanked Silver for his persistence and continued to send referrals his way.

“I had an orthopedic surgeon in Wisconsin who would call me [for advice] prior to doing certain surgeries,” Silver said. “Our outcomes were phenomenal.”

Passing on

Most important, Silver said, is that all the right training cannot prepare practitioners for the type of education they get from years of hands-on experience.

Those not born with the natural ability to connect with others can spend a lifetime working to sharpen their communication skills. O&P practitioners who invest time in developing the ability to read their patients, anticipate their needs and provide the best care for them undoubtedly have an advantage over the rest.

Scott Silver worked to teach health care professionals about the benefit of learning to communicate until the end of his life. Now, those he taught are responsible for passing on his legacy to health care’s future. — by Stephanie Z. Pavlou

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