Sorry doctor, you’re already an actor

Following one of my recent articles on how physicians can improve their communication skills and ultimately help attain better patient outcomes, I received an interesting comment from a physician. It went something like this: “Sorry, but I’m not an actor.”

This response typifies a small (but not insignificant) subset of responses I get when I’m discussing and promoting techniques that any doctor can utilize to better their skills in this area (I secretly also enjoy trying to engage doctors like this and convince them to see differently). And while I don’t claim to have any monopoly of eternal wisdom on this issue, I do think I’ve got a sense of people in general, and what our patients tend to respond to. The art of communication is, after all, also a science. Absolutely anybody, no matter what field you are in, can improve their communication skills and take themselves up a few notches on the ladder. All they have to do, is be motivated to do so.

Why is this important? Well, whether you are talking about doctors communicating with patients, any other professional communicating with their “clients,” or even someone who just wants to climb the career ladder — having good communication skills is the single most important life skill you can have. And seeing the returns of this, in your everyday interactions, is extremely rewarding. It not only makes you more successful in general, but also happier in your work too. At the other end of the spectrum, having suboptimal communication skills, is probably holding you back in ways you couldn’t even imagine.

I read a book last month by a physician with many of the same interests as me, who I’ve also had the pleasure of speaking with several times over the phone. Dr. Bob Baker is a gastroenterologist from New York, who was in private practice for over 30 years, only recently retired. He is a remarkably talented man. In addition to being an extremely popular doctor, he also balanced this with a busy personal life and seven children! Oh, did I also mention that he is a professional magician and ventriloquist? You can see his performance on America’s Got Talent here.

There’s a long story behind why the judges didn’t allow him to go through on AGT, including being Howard Stern’s physician, but I’ll let you find out the truth behind that yourself. His book is called The Performance of Medicine, with the subtitle: “Techniques from the stage to optimize the patient experience and restore the joy of practicing medicine.” Quite a profound statement, but it certainly lived up to this title.

Dr. Baker talks about his experiences performing in front of audiences, and how the same mentality can be used by physicians who want to give their patients the best possible experience as well. This may all sound rather far-fetched to some, but the book is masterfully written, emphasizing at all times the need to be totally devoted to our patients while we are seeing them and delivering great personalized care. I highly recommend this book to any doctor.

I’ve written previously about how physicians and other health care professionals simply do not receive enough initial medical school education or ongoing reinforcement of this topic. The amount of communication skills training is woefully inadequate. It’s literally the core of what we do. And to be frank, I think some of the people that I’ve heard teach this topic have not necessarily been the best either. If you are presenting on how to engage patients more, you cannot have an academic professor talking in an unenthusiastic, robotic, monotone that sends the audience to sleep within five minutes! I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it’s true!

But let me go back to my original paragraph and the notion of being a “performer” or “acting.” By using this word, we are not talking about being inauthentic or fake. On the contrary, anyone who is in a professional job or position of responsibility knows how to put their “professional face” on, and deliver their best. Are you the same person you are at work, that you are at home? Do you talk the same way to your patients as you do your family and friends? Do you take on a different persona when you don that white coat and step onto your stage? We know what the answer is. So to that subset of physicians who scoff at the notion of not being one — the truth is you already are, very much, an actor. The only question is: How show-stopping will your next performance be?

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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