The less effectively we communicate, the more likely we are to be sued

As a physician, do you care enough about your patients? It is my belief – and my experience – that physicians care deeply in ways that we demonstrate through our hard work, our commitment, and our willingness to go beyond the ordinary almost every day of our professional lives.  What often gets “lost in the soup” of busyness is the communication of that caring in a mindful, purposeful and comfortable fashion.

The result of purposeful communication, a communication that brings us to full and empathic presence, dwells at the heart of the patient-physician relationship, and helps build a bridge of trust between these two equally important partners on a health-care journey.

What I notice in myself and in others, is that very simple shifts in the way I show up at the bedside, the way I interface with patients, the way I intentionally remember to communicate in a clear and caring way has an amazing impact not only on outcomes and the patient experience, but also on my own experience and level of personal satisfaction.  I simply feel better about how I choose to be at the bedside or in my office.

As health care providers we talk a lot about dissipating anxiety for patients and families but do we really accomplish that? I would suggest that there is an anxiety that is constantly present in many physician communities about time, about pressure, about outcomes and success, about jockeying our way through systems that we don’t completely understand and can’t predict and that anxiety can inadvertently be communicated to our patients.

There are multiple motivators for improved communication skills.  The value-based-purchasing reimbursement model and tandem CAHPS scoring is certainly a financial incentive to have and utilize good communication skills. I think that’s the basis for an increased interest in finding ways to improve the patient experience.  Those scoring tools include direct questions about how health care providers communicate, so communication skills have become a fairly hot topic these days.

I do believe physicians also intrinsically recognize that communicating caring and respect is as important as communicating information and data.  The challenge is that we have been taught well how to deliver diagnoses and details, but have had less opportunity to sharpen the skills of communicating from the heart.

Furthermore, the less clear and caring our communication, the higher the incidence of a malpractice suit being filed.  This is a well-researched topic and a well-established relationship; the less effectively we communicate, the more likely we are to be sued.

Regardless of how many years we’ve been practicing medicine, we all can improve our communication skills. Join me in making it a top priority in your practice for 2013.

Carla J. Rotering is vice president, physician services, Leebov Golde Group. She is the co-author of The Language of Caring Guide for Physicians: Communication Essentials for Patient-Centered Care.

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