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.

View 7 Comments >