The Hierarchy of Communication Needs: A Novel Communication Strategy for High Mistrust Settings Developed in a Brazilian COVID-ICU

Palliat Med Rep. 2024 Feb 9;5(1):86-93. doi: 10.1089/pmr.2023.0070. eCollection 2024.


Context: The COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges for health care systems. Overcrowded units, extreme illness severity, uncertain prognoses, and mistrust in providers resulted in a "pressure cooker" where traditional communication strategies were often insufficient.

Objectives: Building on well-studied traditional communication interventions, neurobiology principles were used to create a novel communication strategy designed in the COVID-ICU to respond to the unique communication needs of patients within the context of a high mistrust setting.

Methods: The hierarchy of communication needs recognizes three specific levels of communication that are essential within high-emotion and low-trust settings. The first level is to establish trust. The second level is to resonate with patients' emotions, helping to reduce arousal and improve empathy. The third level includes the more traditional content of disclosing prognostic information and shared decision-making. When facing communication challenges, clinicians are taught to move back a level and reattune to emotions and/or reestablish trust.

Discussion: The COVID pandemic revealed the shortcomings of a primarily cognitive communication style. The hierarchy of communication needs emphasizes trust building, and emotional resonance as prerequisites of effective cognitive discussions, resulting in more effective clinician-patient communication that more fully incorporates cultural humility and better meets the needs of diverse patient populations. Additional research is needed to further develop this strategy and evaluate its impact on patient experience and outcomes.

Keywords: Brazil; Latin America; communication; education; global health; intensive care; low- and middle-income country; palliative care; shared-decision making.