Physicians everywhere are having to deal with ever-shrinking time slots with their patients. Every doctor (or nurse) would love to have more time if possible, and it’s probably one the biggest frontline frustrations for any clinician who wants to do a good job. Time to go over the history in more detail, examine the patient thoroughly, and then spend adequate time discussing everything afterwards. Wouldn’t that be nice?
The reality though of most health care systems is that physicians are not afforded that luxury (it’s certainly not something unique to the United States, and may even be worse in many other developed nations). With surging demand, falling reimbursements and more complex diagnoses and treatments — this time restraint issue only seems likely to get worse. The question then is not how do we keep wishing for that utopian amount of time, but rather, how do we make the most out of the time we have and use it to its maximum potential? How do we still make any patient feel well cared for, give them a decent health care experience, but still remain focused and time efficient?
One of the modules I teach health care professionals is how we can go about doing this very thing, and try to be an absolute top-notch communicator during that quick interaction. There are a number of techniques one can utilize, both verbal and non-verbal, in order to help achieve this (which can actually be used in all situations, even in your personal life!). These science-based communication skills involve both verbal and non-verbal cues, which anybody can learn.
You may already be aware of the fact that the majority of our everyday communication with other human beings is non-verbal. The initial research from the 1970s by Professor Albert Mehrabian in California produced the famous statistic of 93 percent. This figure is often debated in the psychology community, but whether or not it’s truly as high as this, you get the gist. The first step, therefore, is to think about your non-verbal body language when you are in a hurry. Without delving into all the individual behaviors, are you visibly on edge and showing signs of being rushed, in your facial expression, posture, and hand gestures?
As a general rule of thumb, most of us are very good at recognizing these behaviors in others, but not so good in ourselves! However, patients pick up in a second if their doctor looks rushed or flustered, and its common feedback I hear from patients when they talk about how their physician interacted with them.
In terms of the verbal interaction, there are several ways you can ensure that you do what I call “turning 10 minutes into 20” through clever use of verbal communication techniques. Some of these include allocating a certain amount of uninterrupted talk time for the patient (while actively listening), sitting down at the same level, use of open-ended questions, and allowing time for a summary at the end of the consultation. None of these involve adding more time or putting a huge amount of effort in. But if you’re interested in learning and implementing these, it’s something that only requires some self-awareness and motivation to adopt these techniques into your everyday repertoire. Ideally, something practical like this should be taught to all medical students and residents, to prepare them for life as a busy physician, but sadly it isn’t!
The rewards for any doctor, both for your patients and your own job satisfaction, are immense. It’s simply about seeking to give our patients the best possible human experience within the constraints of our very fragmented and complex health care system.
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