It is not something that is taught enough in medical school, but practicing physicians quickly realize that in this business: Communication is everything. The reality of health care is that you can be the worst physician in the world clinically (not that it’s something desirable to be), display great interpersonal skills, communicating well with your patients — and they will do absolutely anything you say and put you up on a pedestal. Everyone in health care knows a physician like this. Then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the doctors who are superb clinically, can quote you any scientific paper over the last decade, yet haven’t got a clue how to talk to patients or their families!
As somebody who regularly teaches communication skills and has observed the common habits of physicians, while also hearing the common complaints that patients have, here are three ways doctors can communicate better:
1. Sit down. This is such a simple thing to do, but most doctors tower over their patients in the hospital and buzz in and out of the room like light speed. Did you know that if you sit down and talk for the same amount of time, studies show that patients perceive you spent longer with them than if you stood up? Furthermore, patients have even been shown to be happier and more likely to be compliant when their doctors sit down. Other recommended postural techniques include making direct eye contact and leaning in when you speak.
2. Listen. The average physician lets the patient talk for under 20 seconds before interrupting. Sure, doctors are among the busiest people out there, and certainly, need to focus on what’s actually wrong and the correct time course of events — but give your patients a chance to speak! Just as in your personal life, sometimes you’ve got to just stop and listen, ceasing doing all the talking. Next time you encounter a patient, deliberately wait and let your patient speak for even just a few seconds longer. Remember the famous phrase: if speaking is silver, then listening is gold. Also, make sure you don’t leave without giving the patient and their family a chance to ask questions.
3. Involve the family always. Speaking of families, often it’s more important to talk to them than the patient! It could be a very elderly patient, a confused one, or just someone who is overwhelmed and scared. Don’t move onto that next patient without pondering whether or not the family is in the loop. Moreover, it could save you a page or a telephone call later in the day too! Never see this as an added inconvenience: Imagine your own loved one was sick, and how you would feel.
Sure, some of us are born with an innate ability to communicate better than others. But certain communication skills and techniques can totally be learned and improved upon through deliberate practice. Not only is it awesome for patients, but those moments of personal connection are also the most meaningful of a physician’s day too. At a time when other factors including technology and bureaucracy feel like they are always dragging doctors away from our patients, the reality that real-life human connection still means so much in health care, is heartening.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, DocThinx.
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