Blog | Thursday, May 25, 2017

Improving communication in health care

Being a physician, or working in health care in general, is about as much of a social and personable job as one can get. This is something that's sadly not taught adequately in medical school to future doctors. Even during a typical physician's career, there isn't as much reinforcement of this message as there should be.

As somebody who has been involved in teaching this very important subject, we still have a lot of work to do. The communication skills training that is given in many other industries (which actually involve less communication than health care) is far superior to what we get. And this has consequences. From that negative patient interaction that can easily ruin your day, to the fact that your administration is not communicating with its frontline staff appropriately—a lot of the job dissatisfaction and burnout that occurs in medicine is a direct result of poor communication and suboptimal interactions.

Here's what we need:
1. Regular medical school courses

Emphasizing the importance of communication skills, and how to incorporate better techniques into your patient interactions. This needs to be more than just the relatively brief amount of time that is currently given to this in the typical medical school curriculum. There also needs to be a focus on showing empathy and how your future success as a clinician will depend on this skill. Furthermore, we need the right people teaching this! If it's that stuffy medical professor just reading of a script—who to put it mildly may not be the best communicator himself—how is it possibly going to inspire our future doctors?!
2. Lectures and courses for practicing physicians

There has to be constant reinforcement and reminders about the importance of good communication with patients and also other members of the healthcare team. Everyday scenarios and interactions should be practiced, including conflict resolution and de-escalating common highly charged situations.
3. Make it part of regular Continuing Medical Education

Along with all the important clinical education and knowledge it takes to practice as a physician, why not add (even just a couple of hours) mandatory CME for physicians to refresh themselves on humanity, real-life interactions, and the right way to address challenging communication situations.

I've been honored myself to teach many of the above points over the years. Most physicians (and nurses, or whoever else is working in a healthcare setting) end up enjoying these types of training sessions. A variety of methods can be employed, including role playing and acting out your “worst patient” scenarios.

There's also another major aspect to this we shouldn't forget: By talking openly and thinking more about our everyday interactions and trying to improve them, it also helps to make our own work significantly more fun and enjoyable—thereby reducing our own stress levels.

Hippocrates said over two millennia ago: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has”. It was true then, and it's still true today. What's more, it always will be, no matter how much it currently feels like factors including excessive bureaucracy and technology are taking us away from these ideals. As humans, we will always crave emotional connections with other people. Especially when it comes to matters involving our health.

So Doctor, keep on trying to understand your fellow human beings—because in health care, communication is everything.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care. This post originally appeared at his blog.