How to improve doctor patient communication


When I was a medical student on my first clinical rotation, obstetrics, I was criticized for not using enough medical jargon when I spoke to the patients.

I took that criticism as a compliment and have always attempted to speak clearly and without too much “inflation” of my terms. In my opinion, the more clearly we physicians communicate, the better will be our patients’ understanding of their ailments.

The important topic of doctor-patient communication led a neurosurgeon on iMedExchange, Dr. Thomas Lansen, to make some suggestions, which I have paraphrased and amplified below:

  • Don’t talk science to your patients. It may show what you know, but it doesn’t give them any information. Use language that is appropriate to the situation. Make real-world analogies.
  • Cover your important information slowly. If the clock is your enemy, invite your patient to return for questions at another visit.
  • Don’t be defensive. Most negative posturing by patients is a reflection of fear. Kindness and empathy help soothe people’s fears.
  • Patients forget what you tell them. We all do when we go to the doctor’s office. Repeat key elements and gently ask whether the patient understands the information.
  • A patient’s companion can be quite helpful. Treat questions from the companion with as much attention as if they came directly from the patient.
  • Don’t rush through negative information. When speaking about complications, give a few moments for questions, and be candid.  Complications don’t occur often, but if you have one, it’s a 100% occurrence for you; so it’s important that you know what could happen.
  • If you are a specialist, as I am, know that you may often encounter patients who have been referred from their physician who do not fully understand the implications of their disease. Work through this benign ignorance and help the patient come to a better understanding of the facts and details.

There are many more comments one could make, but let these few items serve as an addition to the topic of improving doctor-patient communication. That street goes both ways of course. It is important for both doctors and patients to understand each other’s points of view, as best they can, to ensure maximum understanding through information sharing. This aspect of being an e-patient is, to me, one of the most important: improved care through shared understanding.

Paul Dorio is an interventional radiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, Paul J Dorio, MD.

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