As physicians go about their extremely hectic days, see patient after patient, and balance it all with an ever-increasing administrative workload, it’s so easy to forget how each and every patient is a unique person with their own story to tell. It may seem like the next case of congestive heart failure or COPD is something we’ve seen a million times before—but who knows where the patient is in their understanding of the illness or their inner emotional state when we get round to seeing them. That’s why those precious few minutes we get to spend with our patients is the most important part of the day. That person may have been waiting hours to see us, so it’s crucial all doctors are able to get into the “zone” and give them the attention they deserve.
If we look at the total number of healthcare complaints that are given across America (or even the world), I’d hazard a guess that being on the receiving end of poor communication ranks well ahead of medical errors, adverse side-effects, or even cost objections. As somebody who, like most physicians, has heard hundreds if not thousands of these types of complaints, and is now in a position where I am teaching and writing about frontline communication skills—the issues that usually lead to negative feedback are typically quite basic, and don’t take too much time to prevent. Here are 5 of them:
1. “My physician was just too rushed”
This is probably the most common gripe. Yes, doctors are all very rushed, and healthcare is a frantic environment by its very nature. However, no doctor should ever give away their hurriedness with their body-language, tone of voice or mannerisms. Appearing calm and like you have all the time in the world (even when you don’t) is the noble goal to aspire to. It is often said that the greatest gift you can give to anyone, is the purity of your attention. For nobody is that more true than for a doctor who is faced with a patient.
2. “My doctors didn’t speak to each other”
This phenomenon, which I have previously named “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen Syndrome”, is endemic across America. How confusing it must be to get two doctors coming in to see a patient within minutes of each other, frequently giving them and their family completely contradicting messages. It could be a diagnosis or discharge date mix-up, but it’s enough to make the patient feel like there’s no true captain of the ship. The last thing anybody wants to feel when they are sick. It’s understandable that these types of experiences are going to bother, and probably irritate, our patients.
3. “My doctor acted dismissive”
There’s no such thing as a bad question or thought. Even if it’s that patient who is “Dr Google” and has brought with them reams of printed information, that’s just something we have to professionally deal with. After all, it’s their body in the end—and I’d take that extreme over a patient who doesn’t care or wants to be spoon-fed. Patients have a right to ask questions and it’s the physician’s job to act professionally, being the calm and understanding voice of authority.
4. “My doctor didn’t explain things coherently”
In the healthcare bubble, it’s all too easy to assume that our patients are completely health literate and understand all of the technical jargon. Knowing the appropriate wording to use according to education level, is something that can usually be figured out quite quickly within minutes of talking to any given patient. I’ve been surprised by so many seasoned physicians, when hearing them talk to patients both over the phone and in the hospital—using highly complex medical terminology that even I may need to look up myself!
5. “The doctor didn’t seem to care”
This is just about the worst thing that any patient can ever perceive after an interaction with a doctor. Fortunately, I’ve hardly met any doctors who truly don’t care. The issue is not so much questioning the reality of a physician’s dedication, but how they come across when they are communicating with patients. The first thing that any doctor must do to ensure that nothing like this ever happens, is simply to make sure that they listen more than they speak. That’s always the very first step in portraying empathy and compassion in any discussion.
The above complaints could actually occur with any professional who is dealing with the general public. But they are more important to avoid for anybody who works in healthcare, because we work in an emotionally charged environment—with matters of health, life and death on the line. Remember, good communication lies at the core of all good medical care. That doctor-patient moment that we get is where the “magic” of medicine occurs. It’s a time that is all about the physician, their skills, and using them to serve a patient. It’s a point of the day that no regulator, administrator, or computer can ever interfere with—if doctors choose for it to be that way. And the best way to do that is simply by making it all about communication and connection with the suffering human being who is wanting to put their trust in a dedicated physician.
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