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By Yanling Yu

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Updated on January 28th, 2015 at 9:43 am

Can you guess the biggest complaint consumers have about their healthcare providers?

No, it is not about the long waiting hours. Neither is it about rushed office visits. 

According to a 2013 Consumer Reports’ survey of 1,000 patients, unclear explanations of medical problems by physicians was the number one thing that bothered people the most, with an averaged rating of 8.1, on a scale of 1 to 10.  

In another words, the number one thing that bothers patients is that their doctors do not inform them adequately about their medical conditions and treatment recommendations.

Certainly, it takes time to explain healthcare information. That can be tough when doctors’ schedules are packed nowadays. But, busy schedules aside, there is something else that is missing, i.e., the art of communication.

No one is born a natural communicator. Being a scientist myself, I remember my training and practice on trying to use just a couple of sentences to describe my research or to compact my results into a five-minute talk. It is not easy and takes practice.  I read a recent Nature blog: how to communicate your science in the best way. Steven Palmer, head of press and science communication at Cancer Research UK, ran a “media training booth” at a recent Naturejobs Career Expo in London. He suggested that all scientists should try to explain their research to their friends. “Do they understand roughly what you do? And I don’t mean in a rambling long conversation across a whole Friday night. I mean in 5 minutes. Do they get it? And let them replay it to you. If they’ve got it, you’re fine.”

I found Palmer’s comments interesting because his suggestion could apply to all fields that require effective communication. I can understand that communicating complex health care information can be difficult and sometimes emotional. But, I would like to venture that discussing with a patient about health care should not be any more complicated than a scientific topic.  In any case, healthcare providers should acquire and practice the skills to communicate effectively with patients in a short time window.  

However, for some communication skills are not the only barrier. There are other cognitive biases that may prevent good communications with patients. Just a few days ago, a seasoned physician told me that patients do not understand what doctors have to say, thus causing difficulties in patient-provider communication.

I would have to disagree with this attitude that faults patients for inadequate communications. Between providers and patients, it is the former who have the training and possess the knowledge and information that most patients do not have. Therefore, patients rely on their doctors to inform them what is wrong with their bodies, what can be done about it, and what are the risks and benefits for the recommended treatment or if it is best to do nothing at all.  So I would say it is primarily the physician’s responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively with patients to make sure that they understand the results of examinations and differential diagnosis as well as the recommended treatment plans.

Of course, I understand that the healthcare literacy of the general public needs to be improved. Even with my science background and my professionally trained curiosity, at times I do not understand everything that a doctor tells me. I have learned over the years to be proactive and informed and ask questions.  But, sometimes, even when I asked, I was not given all the information that I needed to make an informed medical decision or my concerns were not listened to and ignored; in a couple of critical occasions, I was deemed as lacking the “medical training” and thus “not capable of making healthcare decisions.”

However, as patients and family members, we do possess unique, critical knowledge that providers do not have:

  • We experience the symptoms with our bodies first hand;
  • We know what is important in our and our loved ones’ lives;
  • We have traveled through our own medical history and know all of it;
  • And, we can and do learn medical knowledge relevant to our health from many resources.

As such, patients and family members may have important information to offer during their medical care consultations. Thus, a good listening skill is essential for being a medical professional and can enhance the communication between a provider and a patient.

A number of other approaches may also help improve provider-patient communications, for example, using the language that patients can understand and applying the teach-back technique. Informative handouts on common illnesses can be helpful as well written summaries after each visit. A better informed patient is a win-win situation for all involved the care.

But, the most important of all is to treat patients and their family members as partners with respect and empathy; listen to what they can offer; address their concerns; talk to them with genuine interest in their welfare; and never loose the human connection. It is this patient-centered focus that makes healthcare communication truly unique, challenging, and often rewarding.

Like everything else, all skills take practice. Communication is no exception. So let’s all work together, physicians and patients, to improve healthcare communication. It is the core of the patient-centered care culture and medical care safety.

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