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5 communication mistakes physicians should avoid

Being a doctor is about as much of a social job as one can get. Even though computers and healthcare information technology mean that physicians are now spending a disproportionately large amount of their time staring at their computer screens, there’s no getting around the importance of good old face-to-face interactions. That’s also what’s valued by your patients. In this time of great upheaval in healthcare, everything has changed apart from human nature.

Here are 5 things that doctors should never do:

1. Keep turning around and looking at your computer screen when your patient is trying to talk to you. This is consistently one of the things that annoys patients the most. Of course, it’s very difficult for doctors as well, who have a crazy high amount of bureaucratic “tick boxes” to satisfy, but try setting aside a dedicated amount of time to just sit face-to-face and talk the good old fashioned way

2. Make it obvious you are in a hurry. Humans are perceptive animals, and we can all sense when someone is trying desperately to get away from us! Be aware of the subtle body language clues that will give this away, including starting to walk away (in a hospital), cutting people off, or worst of all—telling the patient how busy you are

3. Asking only closed questions. There’s often more grey in medicine than black or white, and there’s not always a “yes” or “no” answer out there. A medical history is a story, not a robotic set of tick boxes. Open-ended questions typically start with a “how,” “what,” “when” — or a phrase like, “tell me about.” Closed-ended questions demand yes and no answers only, such as: “Do you have abdominal pain?” There is a way to balance open-ended questions with staying focused and time efficient.

4. Making it sound like a patient’s problem is trivial. The amount of trust placed in physicians is humbling. Patients will pour their heart and soul out to you, and share their innermost secrets after knowing you for just a few minutes. If your patient is telling you something that’s on their mind, never be dismissive

5. Not allow any time for questions. Remember healthcare is a matter of life and death a lot of the time. What could possibly be more important to either the patient or their loved ones? Of course, they are going to have lots of questions, and it’s a privilege to be in a position to answer them with your knowledge

The majority of physicians do a superb job in difficult and high-pressure circumstances on a daily basis. We all fall short at times and can do a little better. Gentle reminders that we work in a unique and special profession are always important.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, DocThinx.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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