The #1 Reason Doctors Should Be Concerned About Their Communication Skills

29 Jan

As a consumer of healthcare in the United States, and a professional in the field of communication skills development, I was thrilled to find an article in the Wall Street Journal called The Talking Cure for Health Care, which highlights the growing attention being given to a critical issue in healthcare: The need for doctors to possess stellar communication, listening and interpersonal skills with their patients.

The article draws on findings from studies and input from experts in communication skills development for physicians, such as Adrienne Boissy, Director of the Center for Excellence in Healthcare Communication at Cleveland Clinic, and Leslie Hall, Interim Dean of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, that shed light on the negative impact of poor doctor-patient communication and interactions:

  1. It hurts the quality of care and directly impacts patient outcomes.
  2. It drives up the costs of care.
  3. It increases the risk of lawsuits.

As the article notes, further driving the medical community’s growing interest in improving doctors’ ‘bedside manner’ with patients are new rules under the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) that tie compensation to patient outcomes; under the ACA, the Federal Medicare Program will withhold payments to hospitals that receive poor results on the now-required patient-satisfaction surveys and/or have too many preventable readmissions. By the same token, hospitals can avoid cuts and stand to earn additional payments if they perform well on patient-satisfaction surveys.

While all of these factors make a great case for significantly increasing the emphasis on doctors’ communication, listening and other interpersonal skills with their patients, the single most important reason that doctors (and the medical community as a whole) should be concerned about ‘bedside manner’ must not be overlooked:

It is the right thing to do.

Of course, making money and avoiding lawsuits is critical; abiding by the new ACA rules really matters; and career advancement is understandably a key priority for physicians. If the likelihood of achieving these business priorities increases with a greater emphasis on doctors’ communication, listening and other interpersonal skills with their patients, then that’s great for all of us. But, let us not lose sight of the fact that the greatest driving force behind our efforts to strengthen the doctor-patient relationship should always be a genuine, humane concern for the person in need of medical care. 

Clearly and thoughtfully communicating with people; treating them with respect and compassion; reading their non-verbal cues; ensuring the capacity to reflect on our own behavior; active listening; etc., are all so essential because they are, quite simply, what people need and what they deserve. It is these qualities and so many others that, when all combined, make a physician a consummate professional and, sappy as it may sound, a good human being.

It is not enough for hospitals and physicians to embrace the importance and engage in communication and other soft skills development programs solely as a necessary action to avoid financial loss and increase financial gain. Physicians need to view exceptional communication and interpersonal skills as critical to their overall professional persona, as a core part of their personal code of ethics and standards for exemplary care.

The good news is that there are so many physicians, newcomers and longtime professionals alike, who already feel this way; they treat their patient as their most important stakeholder and make tending to that relationship a top priority. Also exciting is the growing number of universities that are offering high quality communication skills training programs for medical students and practicing physicians, with the University of Missouri and the Cleveland Clinic among the leaders in this area.

My hope is that this greater focus on physicians’ soft skills and the quality of the doctor-patient relationship is not simply a short-term trend in response to the current business model for physician care, but rather a move towards a permanent, more people-sensitive shift in the provision of healthcare overall.

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