The stereotype of the doctor who doesn’t know how to talk to patients and their families often holds true. Of course, no doctor would ever readily admit to this shortcoming—the truth of which usually only becomes obvious when doctors are on the flip side of the equation and see how information gets relayed when their own loved ones are in the hospital.
Case in point:
Mom: “They put your grandfather on the ventilator.”
Mom: “Oh, no, wait, sorry, maybe the doctor said Ventolin.”
Ventolin and ventilator—not exactly a potayto potahto type situation. One is a simple rescue inhaler while the other implies full respiratory support. But these types of miscommunications are incredibly common.
In the chaos of the hospital, sometimes physicians fail to properly convey key details about treatment plans and clinical results. Or, when doctors do make sure to keep family members updated, they talk too quickly or use overly complicated language, thus leaving room for even more confusion. At the end of the day, family members and physicians have the patient’s best interests at heart, so why is it so hard to keep the wires from getting crossed?
Interpersonal skills are not something easily taught or learned, and medical schools across the country are starting to realize that these skills usually matter far more than MCAT scores and academic GPAs when it comes to the future doctors of America.
Many medical schools are implementing communication improvement courses into their curriculum so as to begin establishing the importance of patient-doctor communication as early as possible. Not too surprisingly, a JAMA study in 2013 found little improvement in communication skills with simulation based training when compared to usual education.
So if interpersonal and communication skills cannot be taught, are we all doomed to suffer from doctors who do not know how to talk to patients and their families? I hope not.
Patients and their families are already overwhelmed by the fact that they (probably) know very little about how hospitals and clinics work. They don’t entirely understand the key differences between triaging ER doctors, admitting medicine doctors, and consulting specialist doctors. They don’t know why phlebotomists come and poke their family members in the middle of the night for bloodwork. They do not understand that imaging tests often take days because of emergent tests that bump routine ones. They don’t fully understand the differences between nurses, CNAs, residents, PAs, NPs, attendings, and all the other people they see in the hospital who seem like revolving doors of providers.
And in all this confusion, the patient and their family members are most likely scared, because being sick and in the hospital is a very frightening situation.
So, to make a difficult situation slightly less upsetting, doctors need to be kind. We need to introduce ourselves, and then explain, in simple terms, our patient care role. Then we can convey all pertinent medical information in a calm and collected manner.
Because, more likely than not, these family members are the ones who are going to help take care of the patient in question when the rest of the medical team is long gone. We all know that this is how we would want to be treated if the tables were turned.