Rx for time-crunched physicians: communication skills that increase physician efficiency and patient satisfaction
With their waiting rooms crowded and exam rooms full, many physicians say they are too busy to be good communicators. Those who study physician time-management think otherwise. Certain communication skills can foster efficiency and effectiveness during an office visit without sacrificing rapport with patients, according to researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and the University of Rochester.
Their guide to a smoother flow of communication between doctors and patients appears in the July 14 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Their model is based on the authors’ observation: “Effective communication in primary care must include skills that enhance the quality of care while helping patients and physicians use time wisely… Making the best use of available time is important for visits of any duration.”
The researchers are Larry Mauksch, a UW behavioral scientist in family medicine who studies and teaches doctor/patient communications; David C. Dugdale, an internal medicine physician and director of the UW Hall Health Primary Care Center; Sherry Dodson, UW clinical medical librarian; and Ronald Epstein, professor of family medicine, psychiatry, and oncology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and its Center to Improve Communication and Health Care.
A few of the lessons the researchers presented in the resulting article, “Relationship, Communication, and Efficiency in the Medical Encounter: Creating a Clinical Model from a Literature Review” (copy attached) are:
First, focus the purpose of the visit with the patient: Instead of addressing each issue as it surfaces, creating a list at the start enables the doctor to confirm which problem is most medically urgent or most important to the patient. This approach also reduces the “Oh, by the way” issues brought up at the end of the visit.
Then, understand the patient’s perspective: Exploring the patient’s viewpoint is useful for promoting self-management, suggesting healthy changes, assessing motivation, learning the patient’s family and cultural beliefs, understanding the social and psychological problems that are diminishing the patient’s ability to function, or getting to the root of medically unexplained symptoms.
Near the end, reach a mutual agreement on a plan: The physician and patient decide on approaches the patient is willing to follow to manage or prevent the health concerns explored during the visit.
Throughout the office visit, it’s helpful for physicians to:
Establish rapport and maintain the relationship: Some ways doctors do this are by eye contact, recognizing others in the room, or a brief warm greeting, such as, “Nice to see you.” On the other hand, too much small talk steals away time from considering the patient’s problems.
Practice mindfully: This occurs when physicians pay close attention to their own beliefs and reduce distractions in order to observe their patients’ response to what is being said and done, and adjust accordingly. For example, a doctor lecturing on excess weight might notice the patient withdrawing. The doctor stops and asks about the patient’s views. A physician who doesn’t continuously monitor the interaction or doesn’t check in with the patient may cover areas of little interest to the patient, and miss significant issues.
Track topics: Sometimes an interview veers off course, particularly when there are multiple topics and no clear agenda. Unless the conversation is redirected, it’s likely that no clear decisions will be made on some problems before the end of the visit. Sharing an impression of what has and hasn’t been covered and realigning by agreeing on what to talk about next can keep the discussion organized.
Acknowledge cues: When a physician responds with empathy to a patient’s cues, a patient may reveal beliefs and preferences that can shape a successful treatment plan. Also, once their concerns are taken into account, most patients don’t keep restating them. This saves time.
“Visits with the doctor that contain these fundamental elements,” Mauksch said, “lead to greater patient satisfaction, better adherence to medical regimes, increased self-management, better health outcomes, lower costs, and fewer malpractice claims. These skills enable physicians to do it right the first time, so they don’t have to do it over.”
“We’ve tried to propose a model of doctor/patient communications,” Dugdale added, “that is at the intersection between what patients need and the reality of a doctor’s world. These are skills that make a difference and that doctors can use throughout their entire careers.”
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