Communication skills are lacking in health care today

Take a look around you. What do you see? Babies playing with gadgets, four year olds playing with cell phones, and teenagers and adults playing with iPads or typing away on their personal computers. With the exponential increases in technology, specifically the digitalization of communication, in the past decade, our citizens have moved to the point of paying more attention to our devices than to each other.

As we begin to create more connectivity, especially through e-mail and mobile phones, the person-to-person relationship that we enjoy and have known of for centuries is quickly being lost into the wilderness. What we have to make sure is that this problem does not carry over into the field of medicine.

It is a general rule that physicians become physicians in order to experience the reward of being able to connect with patients and helping them get better. This connection—the human touch- the special, trusting relationship between the doctor and his patient—is the very heart of medicine; and without this high-touch, the meaning of medicine will be nonexistent. Unfortunately, with the recent advances in connectivity, and as we develop more devices that foster connectivity, we begin to fear the loss of what health care is built up around: the person-to-person communication between the doctor and his patient.  So now, the real question is can we save health care by utilizing a balance between high-tech and high-touch?

In the summer of 2011, I participated in a pre-medical program, Pathway to Med School, which was aimed at gearing students to take interest in primary care medicine, specifically in rural Georgia. It was in this program where I learned the concept of high-tech vs. high-touch. I was assigned a practice-based community research project that dealt with at-risk colon cancer victims in Terrell County, Dawson, GA.

From 2000-2004, the mortality rate of colon cancer cases in Terrell County was 48.5 deaths per 100,000 people, one of the highest death rates in the country. It was my goal to figure out the reason why the numbers were this high, and what could be done to fix this tragic problem. First, we sent at-risk patients informational DVDs and physician recommendations encouraging them to get free colonoscopies (transportation paid for). Out of 14 males and 29 females (n=43) over the age of 50 and under the age of 80, zero patients watched the informational DVD. Moreover, following up with patients over the telephone provided little help in encouraging these patients to get a free colonoscopy.

It is hard to believe that not a single patient agreed to get the colonoscopy… free of charge. Dr. James Hotz, a physician from Albany, GA who is on the Board of Directors at the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia and named one of the 100 Most Powerful and Influential people in Georgia by the Georgia Trend magazine, has stated that what we lack in today’s healthcare is the communication skills that once were so prevalent a decade ago.

“We seem to communicate with each other through wires now instead of by voice,” Hotz told me on a recent visit. He told me that what we need is for these patients to talk to their primary care physicians one-on-one in order to see any success in lowering the colon cancer mortality rates in Terrell County.

By sending the patients DVDs and showing them all of the high-tech equipment in the modern age of medicine has little influence in encouraging patients to come into a clinic, free of charge, for a health checkup. “We really need to bring back the personal connection in medicine,” Dr. Hotz told me before I left his office.

Although I have been criticizing high-tech medicine to a certain degree, I do not mean to say health care needs to get rid of it completely. What I am asking for is a balance between the high-tech and high-touch medicine. The medical field has advanced with new developments in technology, and with these advancements comes the reward of saving more lives. However, if physicians can pay attention to the proper use of technology and to the basic human interactions and connections that is at the heart of medicine, high-tech tools will actually help to facilitate high-touch health care.

Satyam H. Veean is a pre-medical student.

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  • Samantha Gluck

    You are so right in stating that communication skills are lacking in health care. It’s not just health care my friend. As a journalist, it drives me insane. So many self-proclaimed writers make copious mistakes in their blog posts and show such an utter lack of understanding for the the written word, it’s astounding. I think this problem is pervasive in our culture. 

    The fact that it’s infected health care, though, poses a much more critical issue – one of life and death. Poor communication can result in patient deaths or misdiagnosis. At best, it can reduce patient satisfaction which will impact meaningful use. 

  • Satyam Veean

    I hope my generation of physicians (and other professions,
    alike) is able to fix this problem that has honestly taken a toll on our
    culture. Specifically, the de-personalization of medical care has some drastic
    consequences in health care, and without physicians recognizing this problem,
    we, patients, are in for a deleterious downward spiral.


  • Steven Reznick

    Doctors need to learn how to listen as well as talk to their patients, their colleagues and family members. With all the advances in technology and communication it is difficult to get a physician to call a colleague and say why he is sending a patient for a consult. It is equally difficult to get a call from the consultant explaining his findings and suggestions. It is part of the lost art of medicine in this high volume insurance company controlled world

  • Satyam Veean

    Your comment is very true Dr. Reznick. The Art of Medicine, which communication is probably the biggest part of, has been compromised with the increases in technology. I think with the increases in technology physicians are able to see more patients, thus giving less personalized time to each patient the physician sees. Computers make pulling up files, charts, etc.. a breeze, and I think doctors will soon realize that they are starting to enjoy medicine less and less because they are missing the one thing they came into medicine for in the first place: a humanistic relation between the doctor and his patient. 

  • lauramitchellrn

    I remember a couple of years ago, I was evaluating a patient for early labor, She ended up going home, but I will never forget the sight of here husband, texting, and paying absolutely no attention to her, even though she was uncomfortable. Made me wonder what things were like at home. 

  • RobertRowley

    By being conscious of the importance of a doctor-patient relationship, and how to use technology to enhance, rather than impede, to strengthen that relationship, I believe it is possible to be both high tech and high touch. It doesn’t happen spontaneously, but can be achieved.
    I wrote a piece for KevinMD a little while back, exploring these issues:

  • Satyam Veean

    Great article Dr. Rowley. I feel like more primary care physicians stress the high touch over high tech because they are around more patients. However, I think all physicians, regardless of their specialty, should practice the high touch.

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