How to Better Communicate with Patients

May 10, 2016
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With healthcare undergoing huge changes in the United States, patients and doctors need to communicate with each other more than ever. But studies show that doctors don’t actually listen very well to their patients – or at least that a lot of patients feel that way.

With healthcare undergoing huge changes in the United States, patients and doctors need to communicate with each other more than ever. But studies show that doctors don’t actually listen very well to their patients – or at least that a lot of patients feel that way.

Doctors aren’t all cold-hearted and inattentive, right? But some patients – especially those dealing with sensitive, hot-button issues like pregnancy, fertility and artificial insemination – feel like their doctors just don’t listen.

The Problem?

The problem goes in both directions, because patients who don’t feel heard are less likely to trust their doctors, which compromises the standard of care a doctor can provide. Why’s this the case, and what can healthcare providers do to change?

Timing actually has a lot to do with it. Too often, patients will wait upwards of half an hour – sometimes longer – between the lobby and the exam room before they finally see a doctor.

Once the doctor arrives, they have, on average, 15 minutes to talk to the doctor. In those 15 minutes, patients are expected to explain their symptoms, be examined, receive treatment or recommendations for treatment, and ask follow-up questions. The system has set us up such that patients can only speak for a few seconds (on average, 12) before being interrupted by their doctor.

What Can Doctors Do?

Physicians have a number of conflicting tasks and priorities when they go in to see patients, and sometimes it can be frustrating, because patients don’t often have the best possible vocabulary for describing their health problems. Likewise, prospective doctors don’t enter medical school on the basis that they will be able to relate to other people.

However, a big part of learning to be a doctor is learning good bedside manner – and more and more training programs are focusing on better doctor to patient communication. Specific training outcomes are hit or miss, however. According to one study, doctors who had undergone one program were no better at communicating or providing quality end of life care to patients whose doctors hadn’t gone through the program.

How to Put Patients At Ease

Communications courses can show doctors how to better relate to their patients – but there’s more to it than that. A big part of it is remembering that you’re dealing with fellow human beings, not just individual collections of symptoms.

Here are a few other tips for improving your relationships with patients.

  • Sit down with your patients. Doctors who sit down and meet their patients at eye level are perceived as being more attentive. They also can’t put their hands on the doorknob and spout medical advice on their way out the door. Patients will appreciate the extra 30 seconds it takes.
  • Understand that most people did not go to medical school. A lot of people know the difference between a colostomy and a semicolon, but your patient might not be one of them. One way to approach this is to ask patients what they know about their health condition – or what previous doctors have said. Also, ask patients to parrot back to you what they understand, and make sure they know which questions to ask.
  • Don’t rely solely on the charts. Patients can tell you more than the charts will. If the labs look normal but your patient keeps showing up with mysterious bruises, take another look and ask more questions.

Final Thoughts

Communicating medical information to your patients is of the utmost importance. The information you provide will help them, ultimately, to make better decisions about their own lives and healthcare.