One of the most annoying things for any professional, is to be face-to-face with the person you are serving—whether it be your customer, client, or patient—in the limited time available to you, and feel that your attention is being diverted from the main problem at hand. It happens to all of us; we are all human. For a physician, it may come in the form of having a patient start going off on what appears to be a tangent about a different issue, completely unrelated to what they are immediately dealing with. You could be a cardiologist, and the patient tells you about their cataracts that have been bothering them for a couple of years. You could be an internist, and start hearing about the patient’s daughter-in-law who just came into the hospital, and caused her to feel stressed. Or a dermatologist who hears a patient complain about the pain in their broken, casted leg.
These situations happen every day, to all doctors, and how we deal with them and re-direct patients back to the main issue at hand, is an important communication technique to master. At one end of the spectrum, you will have the doctor who immediately interrupts and makes it clear they don’t want to hear what is being said, before asking them another question. At the other, you have the doctor who displays empathy and lets the patient talk about what’s on their mind, before getting them skillfully back onto what needs to be discussed. My advice is to always strive to be more like the latter (very few are completely like the former, although it may be more inclined that way). Of course, time is limited, and you cannot be having unrelated conversations for large amounts of time. But the most skillful physicians who are the best communicators will be able to spend a few seconds listening, ask a question or two if it relates to a medical symptom, and then make a comment or a recommendation (even to discuss with another doctor)—without seeming abrupt, harsh or rude. Or worse still, like they don’t care. My advice is simply the following: 1. Keep listening and maintain eye contact (don’t give the impression that you are uninterested); 2. Take a few seconds to actively listen; and, 3. Work out a way to professionally re-direct, while still appearing to care.
Remember, we are seeing patients at a very low point in their lives. They are not themselves, a million things may be going through their heads, and by being an empathetic and compassionate communicator, any clinician can really leave a lasting impression during the brief interaction. You are not a plumber waiting to dive into your work! Patients trust doctors and will open their hearts out to them. Whether physicians like it or not, they are held to different standards than most other professionals by the general public. By not abruptly interrupting or appearing one-dimensional, and coming across as a thoughtful physician who is looking at the whole patient—you will always be appreciated and remembered.
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