'Meetings, forums, networks, committees, workshops, seminars, boards, conferences - all are labels for the continual gatherings that occupy the precious time. Effective communications underpin whether these hour-guzzling interactions match their purpose'

Astronomers reckon they may have discovered a planet with earth-like properties. The inhabitants of Gliese 518 - many billion miles away - would be watching Only Fools and Horses the first time round if they could tune into our television today. A simple dialogue between earth and our newly discovered neighbours would take 80 years - due to the 20 years it would take to send and receive each greeting.

Communications between staff and patients lies at the heart of effective medicine and good outcomes. It is widely acknowledged that when things go wrong for patients it is frequently because of a breakdown in communications. Formal complaints, probably just the tip of the iceberg, reveal inconsistent, absent or unpleasant messages. The effect can damage the customer experience and lead to dangerous clinical events.

Meetings, forums, networks, committees, workshops, seminars, boards, conferences - all are labels for the continual gatherings that occupy the precious time. Effective communications underpin whether these hour-guzzling interactions match their purpose. Someone once called committees cul de sacs down which good ideas are lured and strangled.

Technological progress has vastly enhanced the capacity to communicate but also overwhelm busy managers with information, advice and deadlines. This is not exclusive to healthcare. MPs in the 1950s received an average of 15 letters a week. Now it is nearly 400 separate communications. They used to hand-write replies - now everyone expects rapid personalised responses.

Cotton workers in the 18th century invented a sign language as speaking was impossible in the noise of the machinery. Ironically, by the end of their careers, many were deafened and continued to need their signing.

Tips on how best to communicate make their way into most guides to good management. It was once recommended that to beat the grapevine, leaders needed to communicate the same message seven times. There is even a British Voice Association which advises on protecting the vocal chords.

No curriculum vitae is complete without a reference to the candidate's world-class skills as a communicator. However, the sense of how poor many organisations are at communicating with their staff dominates the concerns expressed in surveys and exit interviews. The annual staff survey is an opportunity, using local questions to test what methods of communication are valued or ignored. Most boards like newsletters full of corporate messages; staff want stories about themselves.

University London College Hospitals trust has launched its new service commitment under the banner of 'putting patients first'. Designed by managers and staff, it outlines the set of behaviours that everyone is expected to follow at work. The 10 descriptions of how patients and visitors can expect to be treated by the 6,000 staff all come down to good communications. Being friendly, giving full attention, listening, offering to help and anticipating needs are now enshrined in every job description.

If scientists are wondering how to open interstellar conversation,asking: 'Is there another NHS out there?' might be a good start.

David Amos is director of workforce at University College London Hospitals foundation trust.