Not everyone who enters the practice of medicine does so in order to make friends, and God knows some patients are just not bosom buddy material. However, knowing how to put patients at their ease, explain conditions and treatments to them appropriately and follow up where necessary has real practical benefits. For one thing, doctors who are seen as friendly, helpful and competent get sued far less often, even when a case for malpractice can be made.
Spending 20 minutes in a depression chat room will open the average M. D.’s eyes.
Often, clinical depression is closely tied to a medical condition, either in a family member or when someone has just received a chronic or unexpected diagnosis. By reading through the conversations, one gets the impression that all doctors are either saints or scoundrels.
It’s important to remember that few patients can really understand the details of their diagnosis and treatment; these technical aspects form only a small part of their total experience. Whether the specific outcomes were positive or negative, though, anecdotal tales abound of doctors who are seen as heroes for simply practicing good communication. Equally, some relatives quite literally blame other physicians for the death of a patient, regardless of the actual level of care provided.
The Clinical Importance of Good Communication
Research certainly suggests that patient outcomes depend on more than molecules. Emotional engagement and clear delivery of pertinent information also have their effects. Whatever one might think about the mind-body connection, simply involving a patient in their own care can yield dividends in terms of increasing their commitment to treatment regimens and any necessary lifestyle changes.
Simply delivering bad news about a patient’s health will often leave them feeling helpless and out of control. By contrast, carefully explaining the general nature of an illness, what treatment options are available and what results can be expected changes their mental context from “what’s happening to me?” to “what can I do?”
How to Be a Better Doctor in Three Easy Steps
Spend the Time
When something significant is wrong with the patient, any rushed consultation is a bad consultation. One of the most easily measurable and correctable distinctions between a doctor seen as supportive and one regarded as a cold fish is simply being willing to spend a few moments extra with each patient.
Everybody has a schedule to keep and bills to pay, but allocating only – literally – two or three minutes more for each consultation can have remarkable benefits. Numerous doctors fail to even introduce themselves and explain their role, meaning that the entire interaction starts off on the wrong foot.
Practice Being Sympathetic
Most patients will feel quite vulnerable and out of their depth during a medical consultation. A doctor who talks down to them dismisses their emotional reactions or seems to blame them for their illness will only magnify these feelings.
Techniques such as active listening can be learned by anyone, and not only support a patient’s emotional state but be of help in reaching more accurate diagnoses. Simply looking up from the iPad and making eye contact with patients while talking to them is already a good start.
Most primary care physicians would think that once a prescription has been written or a referral to a specialist made, their job is done. Seeing the situation from a patient’s perspective, though, this is far from adequate.