Communication is the cornerstone of good healthcare. Despite all the external challenges we face with the system in which we work, those few minutes we spend with patients and their families are precious—and are what we will be remembered for. We therefore owe it to our patients to be at our very best and to make them the absolute center of our world for that time. Few things could be more important for a physician than being able to communicate well.
Communication is, after all, a science—and it’s an area that I am personally very passionate about. I have been honored to give many presentations on this subject, and even one-on-one coaching to my fellow physicians. It simply is not taught enough in medical schools. To be honest though, I do not believe there is any teaching in the world that could ever turn a poor communicator into a great one (just being brutally honest). However, there is a huge amount that any physician—or for that matter any professional—can do to greatly enhance their communication techniques.
The way anybody communicates and the way the recipient interprets everything is a complex interplay of many different factors; what we say, how we say it, and our non-verbal behavior including disposition and mannerisms (most research suggests that the vast bulk of our communication is in fact non-verbal). Here are 5 things that every physician has to always subconsciously communicate to their patient:
1. I am competent
It goes without saying that a physician must come across as being totally knowledgeable and confident in their field. They know their trade down a tee and project that in a calm and down-to-earth manner to their patient: “I am the best and you can trust what I am saying”.
2. I am not in a hurry
Working as a physician is one of the most hectic, unpredictable and high-pressured jobs. The reality is that any doctor is always going to be hurried and have a million and one things to do. However, doctors should strive to never allow their non-verbal behavior to project this to their patients.
3. I am not motivated by money
I was at a party recently and was talking to another guest who had suffered an orthopedic problem. He went to see a specialist in upstate New York, and came out of the appointment convinced that the orthopedic surgeon was trying to be as interventional as possible “to make money”. I’ve actually heard patients make comments like this before, worried that a doctor is trying to “make money off them” by doing more tests. I cannot speak about whether these allegations were true or not (and I believe it’s the minority of doctors anyway who may be like this), but clearly the patient came out of the appointment thinking that. We can get into a debate about healthcare systems (and I’m certainly no fan of heavily centralized socialized medicine)—but at the other end of the spectrum, it’s terrible if any physician is purely motivated financially or for any reason projects this to their patients. The absolute last thing a doctor should be communicating is that they are driven primarily by money.
4. I am more interested in listening than talking
The average physician lets their patient speak for about 20 seconds before interrupting. Sure, all doctors certainly need to stay focused and remain time conscious—but give your patients a chance to speak! Just as in your personal life, sometimes you’ve got to just slow down, stop and listen—ceasing doing all the talking. Remember the famous wise phrase: “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold”. Also, no doctor should ever leave without giving the patient and their family a chance to ask questions.
5. I truly care about you
This relates to some of the above points as well, but the number one thing a physician should be communicating is their total care, dedication, and service to their patient. Nothing but the patient’s welfare is in our hearts. We want them to get better and be healthy as soon as possible and our communication displays empathy and compassion. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, put it very well over two-and-a-half millennia ago: “Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always”.
It’s something all doctors have to keep reminding ourselves of during our busy work days, as we see person after person in ever-decreasing time slots. There’s often nothing more important to our patients than how we communicate with them. So Doctor, make the most out of those few minutes and leave the best possible impression!