Patient – Doctor Communications

In the last couple of weeks there were two interesting articles in the New York Times about patient-physicians communications.

Value of Empathy
In the first  piece, Dr. Pauline Chen discusses an academic article that explored the way physicians communicate empathy to their patients who have serious and life threatening illnesses.  The conclusion of the research, (which looked at the experience of people who had lung cancer), was that physicians miss 90% of the opportunities to connect empathetically with their patients.

The researchers speculated that physicians don’t engage patients empathetically because they are concerned that this would take too much time. However, according to Dr. Chen, the researchers found that “empathy, expressed throughout the patient-doctor encounter, may actually help alleviate problems with time.”  This occured because when empathy was not acknowledged at the beginning of the visit, patients would to try to elicit that type of support from the physician, which could actually extend the time of the visit.

Patients Make a List
The second article was from Jane Brody – a wonderfully gifted health writer – who wrote about ways patients can improve their communications and interactions with clinicians.  Her list had two parts: 6 things to keep written down and bring to your doctor appointments, and 4 tips on how to interact with clinicians.  Her list of 6 things you should keep written down is a good one, and in essence [with my annotations] it is:

  1. Questions for the doctor
  2. Diary of symptoms
  3. List of medicines, supplements and vitamins you take – with name, dosage and how frequently you take them. [Also, please tell your doctor if you are not taking the medicines as instructed for any reason, including if you are having a problem affording any of them.]
  4. Your understanding of how you are supposed to be treating your medical problems [Doctors may think that because they told you something at your last visit that you both understood what they said and are following their guidance.]
  5. Medical history for yourself and your immediate family
  6. Your use of alcohol, tobacco and any drugs not included in #3

The other 4 items on Jane Brody’s list are also valuable:

  1. “Be willing to see a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner for routine care.”  [They will likely be able to spend more time with you on preventive and wellness care issues.]
  2. Ask if the doctor uses email for non-urgent issues and questions.   [Some physicians do and some don’t – possibly because they don’t get reimbursed for communicating with patients via email or over the phone.]
  3. If the doctor tells you to go to the Emergency Room because of your symptoms, don’t wait.  [Go right away.  Don’t wait for your TV show to be over, for the laundry to finish, or to put on makeup or shave.]
  4. If you are told you have a life threatening condition or you need surgery, get a second opinion.

Physicians Use Lists Too
Lists are clearly good things to use so that important things are not forgotten.  People involved with critical, safety-conscious activities like flying airplanes have used lists to make sure that everything is set before takeoff and landing.  After what has probably been too long, such lists are making their way into modern medicine in a more standardized way.

Last December, Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker about how such lists are being used to improve the quality of care and save live (and money) in Intensive Care Units.  The first standardized and studied checklist was for putting in a central intravenous line.  The results were remarkable – lowering infection rates in lines that had been in patients for 10 day from 11% to essentially zero.  Peter Pronovost and his collaborators have since developed many other such checklists, (or protocols as they may sometimes be called), and their use has expanded to many, but still probably not most hospitals.

While these lists are clearly beneficial and valuable, like many medical advances, they are first developed and used for the most critically ill patients in hospitals.  This makes sense, because for hospitalized patients a mistake – or action not taken – can mean the difference between life and death.  And hospitals are also places where systematic changes can be implemented and the results measured.

More Use of List by Physicians
Physicians treating patients outside of hospitals often have lists too, but they are often incomplete and are certainly not standardized.  For example, the charts for most patients have problem lists, which list the individual’s medical problems.  However, it is up to the physicians to refer to them, otherwise, the only problem that may be addressed by the clinician will be the one that brought the patient to the office that day – so any needed preventive or wellness care (like an annual eye exam for someone with diabetes) might be overlooked. This is one reason why the list recommended by Jane Brody is so important.

So while physicians may have their own lists, and they know the reason why each patient has come to see them that day, they might be better served by making a list for each patient’s visit so they can make sure to cover all the things that are needed for that individual patient – and of course, that list should also include a reminder to connect empathetically to the patient.  (This is the same concept as having an agenda before any business meeting that not only lists the topics to be covered, but also states an overall objective and concludes with a wrap-up of actions to be taken – a practice I try to follow and force others to do when I’m invited to a meeting.)

Optimism for the Future
In the future, more diagnostic and treatment protocols and guidelines will be developed and configured into standardized checklists to be used in the outpatient setting.  Integrating these into electronic medical records (EMRs) – which include prioritized problem lists with links to recommended preventative exams and monitoring tests – will certainly help improve the quality of care and control the growth in costs.  Of course, this is predicated upon the development of EMRs that can provide such information in ways that are easily used by physicians and their associates.  (This too might be an area where the medical IT industry can learn from those designing airplane information systems.)

While physicians have railed in the past about guidelines and protocols forcing them to practice cookbook medicine, I hope that in the coming years they will welcome them as a way to standardize and simplify their practices so that they can actually work to individualize care for every patient, and connect empathically with them as individuals.  In decades past, that was one of the primary functions of the local doctor, and perhaps if that function again rises in prominence, the interpersonal rewards of practicing primary care medicine will help it grow in popularity with graduating medical students and residents.

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  1. Pingback: Rethinking compassion in medicine | The Health Care Blog

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