Friday, January 3, 2020

Signal-to-Noise, Provider Communication, and Provider Education

Hi fellow CMIOs, CNIOs, Clinical Informatics, HealthIT friends, (and other Clinical Jedi!),

Happy 2020! May this year bring us all peace, happiness, and good clinical workflows.

Speaking of good clinical workflows, thought I'd introduce today's piece by sharing some recent #HealthIT Tweets - One I was connected with on January 1st came from the great Janae Sharp (@CoherenceMed), via her @SharpIndex account: 

(For those of you who don't know the Sharp Index
it's a 501c 3 non-profit dedicated to improving awareness and tools to combat physician burnout.)

In any case, it's an honor being mentioned in this group with other fantastic people who are working on the same or similar issues - So I figured I'd simply respond with: 

So with this 2020 goal in mind, let's get to today's post. 

Communication with your clinical providers is vitally important. Often when discussing provider communication, I get the question, "Why is it so hard to communicate with providers?", sometimes followed by some kind of joke, usually about providers not being able to read their email in a timely basis. 

At that point, I usually have to explain exactly why provider communication is particularly challenging. To help explain the unique challenges providers face, there's a little concept that's fairly well-known in engineering circles, that is not as well-known in clinical circles - So with this blog post, I thought I'd bridge the gap

It's called a signal-to-noise ratio, sometimes written in engineering circles as "S/N". And it's super-helpful concept in a lot of situations - from everything including tuning your car radio, to developing communication strategy in emergencies, to clinical workflow design, to provider communication and education strategies.

You can read more about the engineering principles behind a signal-to-noise ratio on the Wikipedia page ( ), where on this day I retrieved it (1/3/2020) it defines the signal-to-noise ratio as : 

Signal-to-noise ratio is defined as the ratio of the power of a signal (meaningful information) to the power of background noise (unwanted signal).
The Wikipedia article then has a lot of complex math and descriptions of modulation and decibels, but you don't need to understand any of that math to appreciate the concepts behind a signal-to-noise ratio: 

Slide 1 - Introduction slide showing signal-to-noise ratio

In any environment, as humans, we always seek meaningful information (signal). Sometimes, finding that meaningful information (signal) is easy, provided the surrounding noise is fairly low. And sometimes, finding the signal can be a challenge, especially when the noise is high.

You can experiment with signal-to-noise ratios by visiting a restaurant with a friend before routine dinner hours - and trying to have a conversation

Before dinner hours - your conversation may start with a relatively normal signal, where you can both hear each other fairly well, with only a limited amount of ambient noise in the background; perhaps from waitstaff speaking or preparing for the dinner rush

Slide 2 - Signal-to-noise ratio before dinner crowd arrives 
in restaurant

But as more people come into the restaurant, it starts the race-to-the-top. Gradually more people arrive, the noise in the restaurant goes up, and pretty soon you can't hear each other as well
Slide 3 - Signal-to-noise ratio as more people arrive
and it gets harder to hear conversation

At this point, it starts to become a little uncomfortable - So to compensate, you will both need to speak louder (increase your signal), to continue your conversation in the setting of increasing noise:  
Slide 4 - Both people start speaking louder, to hear 
signal above noise and continue conversation

But then eventually everyone in the restaurant starts speaking louder to hear each other, and the noise goes up again - So it starts to get more uncomfortable: 
Slide 5 - Everyone in restaurant is speaking louder, 
noise goes up, conversation is harder to hear.

And perhaps, just a few times, you can't actually hear what the other person is saying: 
Slide 6 - Noise in restaurant is higher than 
your friend's voice (signal)Conversation fails.

So to keep talking to your friend, you will need to increase your signal, and raise your voice again
Slide 7 - To maintain conversation, you have to raise your 
voice again (increase signal).

... at which point you will start to shout, get a sore throat, or speak only in short sentences (because you can't get enough air to increase your signal above the noise). 

If you've ever experienced this, you probably know it can make for a fairly unpleasant dining experience. Eventually, you'll leave the restaurant, and the first thing you might experience is this: 
Slide 8 - First reaction on leaving the noisy restaurant, 
when everyone seems to be 'speaking loudly'

... after which your friend may say "You don't need to shout anymore!". Soon after, the dinner crowd will empty out, and the restaurant will go back to a more normal signal-to-noise ratio again: 

Slide 9 - The restaurant goes back to a normal signal-to-noise ratio - 
but may wonder why the diners report an unpleasant experience. 

This same principle applies to provider communication and email boxes, which often have an unusual signal-to-noise ratio when compared with other clinical and administrative roles. Whether it's by email, page/text, phone call, or other communications means, here's roughly what most providers and nurses have to contend with: 
Operationally, the above table looks something like this (in no particular order, and Nurses have a very similar-looking communications map) : 
... where you can imagine, being the operator/orchestrator at the center of this communications chain - It's easy for the signal-to-noise ratio to get out-of-hand. This is why, nationally, provider communications and education strategies are particularly challenging.

This is also why, when there are critical safety issues, and patient-care is on the line - The most reliable mechanism you can use to ensure proper communication (and confirm receipt of that information) is a direct telephone call. Other methods (pages, texts, emails, etc.) are all valid forms of communication, but they are asynchronous, and may be prone to delays, or worse yet, they may get lost in the signal-to-noise ratio the provider is currently experiencing. Telephone calls are synchronous, and if it fails - You know immediately that it has failed, so you can try another provider or try another mechanism.

This is also why a good provider communication/education strategy does not just rely on just one mechanism :

[ DRAFT ] LIST - Sample modes of provider communication/education
  1. Telephone Calls - Directly to the provider
  2. Pages - Requesting a call-back from a provider
  3. Texts - Directly to the provider
  4. Emails - To the provider's email inbox
  5. EMR Inbox/Inbasket messages - To the provider's EMR inbox/inbasket
  6. Posters - On the walls of the hospital, office, nursing unit, or staff bathrooms
  7. Department Meetings - Scheduled meetings with the department members
  8. Workgroup Meetings - Scheduled meetings with a select set of clinical staff
  9. Committee Meetings - Regular meetings with selected committees
  10. Face-to-face communication - Meeting in a common location (e.g. cafeteria, staff lounge)
  11. Intranet - Creating a high-value communication/learning ecosystem for providers (containing high-value blogs, videos, and links to training and solutions)
  12. Social Media - Creating easy links to high-value communication/learning (e.g. videos, blogs, and links to training)
  13. Classroom Training / Web Instruction Creating a defined curriculum and assessment tool, for use in a classroom or virtual web environment
  14. Configuration / Clinical Decision Support - Embedding EMR alerts, order set templates, and other tools inside the common EMR workflows, to help guide staff to desired outcomes
  15. Policies/Procedures - Tools used to define organizational standards and how to achieve them
  16. Guidelines - Tools used to educate staff about how to achieve desired outcomes
  17. Onboarding / Credentialing - Tools used to educate staff when they join your organization
  18. Recredentialing - Tools used to educate staff at regular intervals (e.g. recredentialing)
  19. Screen Savers - Tools on the computers in clinical and non-clinical areas that display important messages during periods of non-use
  20. And more...
Each of these tools has it's own costs, risks, and benefits - And so which tools you use, and who you direct them to, requires thoughtful analysis and consideration of things like : 
  • What exactly is the purpose of the communication?
  • Who (exactly) is the desired recipient/audience for the communication? (Careful not to confuse provider service with provider specialty!)
  • What is the criticality of the communication? (What if the communication fails to reach the desired recipient/audience?)
  • What details need to be included in the communication? 
  • When and how often does the communication need to be delivered? (Once? Before a project go-live? Or a series of emails leading up to the go-live?)
  • Which of the above tools are likely to be most effective with the desired recipient/audience?
  • How often will the communication need to be updated? (Is it a one-time communicaiton based on a particular project? Or trying to communicate a TJC standard that may be updated next year? Or trying to communicate a long-standing HR standard that is unlikely to change?)
  • How often will the communication need to be delivered? (Once? In a sequence leading up to an event? Only during credentialing/onboarding? Yearly? Bi-yearly with recredentialing?)
And why I'd like to leave off with a few take-home points
  • It's helpful to understand the concept of signal-to-noise ratios, when analyzing your clinical workflows and provider communication and education strategies.
  • Some ways to help minimize noise include fully building out workflows (to minimize communications related to clarifications), changing the supervision model (to help off-load some communications to other members of the care team, e.g. APPs), or changing communications modes and timing (to better target communications and minimize disruptions during patient care hours.)
  • Good provider communication and education strategies do not rely on a single tool - They are a toolbox of tools.
  • The tool(s) you use for communications and education should depend on a thoughtful analysis of the exact message, the desired recipient(s), the timing, the criticality, the frequency, and the anticipated need to update the message(s) in the future.
  • Every role will have a different communication map - You can streamline your workflows for any role by making a map and then working to streamline your communications.
Hope this is helpful in guiding your clinical workflow analysis and your provider communications and education strategies! If you have any thoughts or feedback, feel free to leave in the comments section below!

Remember, this blog is for educational discussion only - Your mileage may vary. Always discuss with your Clinical Leadership, Administrative Leadership, Legal/Compliance Team, and Senior Leadership before making any strategic changes to your clinical workflows or communications or training strategies.

Have any thoughts or feedback? Or other communications or educational secrets to share? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below!


Sgermanmd said...

As always Dirk, concise, to the point, enlightening, engaging, and spot-on accurate.

Albert Tai said...

This is really helpful, I'm one of the founders of a provider communication app. Signal to noise is very true, making providers easier to reach also means potentially more noise. One of things we are doing actually is decreasing noise from the ancillary stuff by making their other care providers easier to reach (rather than text the attending you know in surgical, you can text the resident) or automation around escalations (if someone doesn't read the text, it goes to the attending). Anyways, very insightful tidbits with great reasons on why communication happens!

Radwoman said...

This is one of the best descriptions I have ever read related to ways to design communications in a clinical setting. Brilliant!