Physicians can be the very best in their specialty, but they also need to be exceptional communicators. This means they must be skilled in a variety of communication techniques. They need to be able to effectively and compassionately provide information that truly connects with patients, family members, and caregivers. And just as important, physicians must communicate consciously to ensure those they communicate with are grasping the critical information during those conversations. Let’s dive a little deeper into the key to physician communication.
Physician communication is stressful by nature
Physicians experience unique communication challenges that most other experts don’t: they engage with their clients during difficult moments in their lives—when a person or their loved one has a health issue. A physician’s goal is to communicate to patients and family members how best to do what is necessary to take care of the patient at home. But tensions often run high during these times because patients and caregivers alike are often anxious and fearful.
These high emotions don’t make it easy for patients or caregivers to remember crucial details of a conversation. When this occurs, the physician must be certain the caregivers grasp the instructions and are able to follow through. The best place for a physician to start is by asking the right kinds of questions.
Ask better questions
When a physician asks, “do you understand?” most people will say that they do, even when it’s not true. Physician communication should consist of more than just assessing if the patient heard the words that were said. Instead of yes or no questions, which don’t indicate whether a patient or caregiver has grasped necessary and critical information, here are three examples of better questions to ask:
- Would you summarize the treatment plan I just described?
- What part of your treatment plan might be the most difficult?
- You have a lot of prescriptions. What is your plan to keep your morning and evening medications in order?
Masks and virtual communication
In today’s world, and probably for the foreseeable future, people will be wearing masks. This can complicate communication by compromising the quality of the spoken voice, which is especially true when the person speaking has an accent. Whether patient or physician, those who sound clear to themselves should be conscious of how their voice may be heard by others—words may be distorted, garbled, or otherwise difficult to understand.
Masks can also be distracting, especially considering so many of us are new to their use. People wearing masks may often adjust their mask to ensure a proper fit, or to change it to a more comfortable position. These kinds of distractions create yet another challenge to physician communication.
Additional challenges with masks when speaking with patients and/or caregivers also apply to virtual meetings, even when no one is wearing a mask. The quality of the microphone, speakers, or video on a computer or mobile device can compromise communication—one party may have a new laptop with good quality speakers and video cameras. But the other party may have years-old equipment with a low-resolution camera and poor-quality speakers.
To improve physician communication, those professionals must update their beliefs about how best to communicate with patients and their caregivers. They must focus on verbalizing messages while also constantly monitoring the patient’s ability to hear, receive, and understand what is being said: the power of effective communication is in checking for grasping, not in speaking louder or more clearly.