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The Importance of “soft” Skills in Healthcare Professions

“Hard” skills are specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured. “Hard” skills are also identified as the abilities or knowledge needed to fulfill specific tasks. In the healthcare professions, technical skills are constantly taught throughout the curriculum and are practiced through skills labs and clinical assignments. For example, in nursing, employers expect nursing applicants to possess specific “hard”/technical skills to be a competent nurse, including understanding pathophysiology, taking vital signs, administering medications, starting IVs, and inserting catheters. In medical assisting, “hard” skills may include understanding injections, taking vital signs, scheduling, patient preparation, and reading an electrocardiogram (EKG). In physical therapy, employers expect “hard” skills to include good motor skills for providing manual therapy, the ability to guide patients in therapeutic exercise, and proficiency in the use of modalities, such as cryotherapy, thermotherapy, ultrasound, and electrotherapy. In dentistry, “hard” skills may include completing initial dental assessments, removing deposits, taking x-rays, and assisting with restorative procedures.

For every health profession, there are defined and measurable “hard” skills that are expected to be mastered when applying for a position. However, it should be noted that when evaluating potential employees for a chosen health profession, these “hard,” or technical skills, are not the only factors being evaluated.

“Soft” Skills/ Personality Skills

“Soft” skills, or personality skills, are harder to measure but are no less important or valuable than “hard” skills. In fact, there are those who would argue that “soft” skills are as crucially important to patients and families during their experience within any part of the healthcare system.

Examples of personality skills include:

  • Excellent communication
  • Compassion and patience
  • Flexibility, adaptability, and emotional stability
  • Proactive, ethical, and responsible nature
  • Honesty
  • Effective team-player
  • Strong work ethic
  • Time management

There are certainly additional desired personality or “soft” skills, but these are some of the most noted when working in healthcare.

Out of all the skills mentioned above, being able to communicate effectively is one of the most vital skills in the field of healthcare. Being able to listen, comprehend, and explain in clear terms to patients and their caretakers enhances the ability to provide patients with effective and individualized care. Clear communication with team members and interprofessional colleagues is also vital in fostering successful collaboration in the workplace.

Why Employers Look for “Soft” Skills in Candidates

As a healthcare professional, “soft” skills affect everyone (i.e., patients, team members, and interdisciplinary colleagues). “Soft” skills often influence how patients rate their overall experience in a healthcare visit. As patients move through a variety of healthcare settings, “soft” skills are often the most observed aspect of the patient encounter. The patient’s perspective or patient satisfaction rating is often captured by using surveys after the patient visit with questions such as: Were you treated with respect and dignity? Were all procedures explained to you in a way that you could clearly understand? How well did the staff work together?

Patient responses to these questions allow employers to evaluate whether patient needs are being met and identify areas for quality improvement. These types of questions are reflected in the healthcare team member’s ability to demonstrate proper use of his/her “soft” skills.

The managers must also model using “soft” skills between team members. Through genuine encouragement and support of colleagues, recent healthcare graduates are able to better understand the importance of being a team player. Even in high-pressure circumstances, having the ability to handle the situation without confrontation is crucial. As the managers model a supportive environment, this attitude will be reinforced throughout the day-to-day experience of the healthcare employee. Consistency in modeling desired behavior can lead to the integration of these “soft” skills as a natural part of the expected performance of the team, providing a cohesive unit that is in sync when caring for the patient.

Much like the use of “soft” skills between team members, interdisciplinary colleagues must also establish a collaborative approach that utilizes “soft” skills in support of the patient. Effective communication between disciplines encourages seamless care and greatly assists in the prevention of errors. Having greatly enhanced clinical outcomes is the goal of all healthcare employers. Having team members who are cognizant of the correct and positive use of “soft” skills helps to reach the employers’ goals.

Strategies for Developing Students’ “Soft” Skills

Taking an honest assessment of all prioritized “soft” skills and identifying those that need improvement should be incorporated into the academic program.

The first step in developing students’ “soft” skills is to determine which “soft” skills are lacking. By first defining the skills that are lacking, it allows the student to develop an improvement plan for those “soft” skills. A thorough understanding of the importance of the skills needing improvement is essential. Creating a list of three to five reasons the “soft” skill should be learned or enhanced will give a framework for developing the skill.

The next step is to practice the skill daily. With some skills, practicing them daily can quickly form a habit, while others may take time. For example, if the lacking “soft” skill is time management, then learning proper planning and good organization will need to be scheduled throughout the day. Creating a habit of focusing on time management improvement will begin to develop this skill as it is incorporated into daily practice.

Finally, keep in mind mastering “soft” skills is an ongoing process and must continue throughout the professional career. Triggering factors affecting positive use of “soft” skills can be a specific type of personal interaction or situation, an emotional state, or external circumstances. Being open to continuing to master “soft” skills when a triggering factor arises will ensure all team members are prepared to act clearly and objectively. Proper use of “soft” skills not only creates valuable healthcare team members but creates an environment to provide the best patient care.

Helen Murphy,

BS, RDMS, CHTS-TR

For more tips and resources from Helen Murphy, click here.

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