Effective doctor-patient communication is a central clinical function in building a therapeutic doctor-patient relationship, which is the heart and art of medicine. This is important in the delivery of high-quality health care. Better doctor-patient communication leads to better healing.
In the last ten years, the US Medical Licensing Exam has been testing its applicants on communication skills. Consider these statistics when meeting with your patients in order to optimize your care:
- 48% of patients said they are always involved in decisions about their treatment
- 29% of patients didn’t know who was in charge of their case while they were hospitalized
- 81% of patients and 71% of doctors think communication makes a difference
How to Improve Patient Communication
- Assess what the patient already knows: Before providing information, find out what a patient already knows about his or her condition. Many times, other physicians or health care providers have already communicated information to the patient, which can have the effect of coloring patient perceptions and perhaps even causing confusion when new information is introduced. It is important, therefore, to determine what a patient already understands—or misunderstands—at the outset.
- Assess what the patient wants to know: Not all patients with the same diagnosis want the same level of detail in the information offered about their condition or treatment. Studies have categorized patients on a continuum of information-seeking behavior, from those who want very little information to those who want every detail the physician can offer. Thus, physicians should assess whether the patient desires, or will be able to comprehend, additional information.
- Be emphatic: Empathy is a basic skill physicians should develop to help them recognize the indirectly expressed emotions of their patients. Once recognized, these emotions need to be acknowledged and further explored during the patient-physician encounter. Patient satisfaction is likely to be enhanced by physicians who acknowledge patients' expressed emotions. Healthcare professionals who do this are less likely to be viewed as uncaring by their patients.
- Slow down: Physicians who provide information in a slow and deliberate fashion allow the time needed for patients to comprehend the new information. Other techniques physicians can use to allow time include pausing frequently and reinforcing silence with appropriate body language. A slow delivery with appropriate pauses also gives the listener time to formulate questions, which the physician can then use to provide further bits of targeted information. Thus, a dialogue punctuated with pauses leads to deeper comprehension on both sides.
- Tell the truth: It is important to be truthful. In addition, it is important that doctors not minimize the impact of what they are saying. This is the best way to develop trust with patients.
Simple choices in words, information depth, speech patterns, body position, and facial expression can greatly affect the quality of communication between the patient and physician. To a large degree, these are conscious choices that can be learned and customized by the physician to fit particular patients in clinical situations.