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8 Simple Communication Tips for Doctors

For many patients, a doctor’s ability to communicate well ranks among the most important components of a positive care experience—sometimes higher than the clinical care itself.

  • Communicating with patients can be challenging. You may have times when you feel you have been abundantly clear on a diagnosis and treatment plan, but your patient leaves your office confused or frustrated. Or no matter how many times you explain something, the patient just doesn’t seem to understand.

    Here are eight reminders on simple ways to maximize your interactions with your patients.

  • 1
    Listen.
    Woman visiting doctor during pandemic

    Take a moment to clear your mind before you go into the exam room. Your brain may be cluttered with a dozen other matters, but listening is one of your greatest assets when it comes to improving patient communication. Listening isn’t waiting for the other person to finish talking; it’s an active skill you can learn and practice. You can build trust with your patient and may discover an insight that leads to a diagnosis. Another reason to listen well: In litigation, patients often cite feeling frustrated that they weren’t heard or understood.

  • 2
    Adjust your pace as needed.
    Young patient looking at doctor in hospital room

    Be aware of your patient’s pace. If someone seems eager to get information from you, you can cut to the chase, but if a patient appears nervous or upset, you may need to slow things down. (If your time in an appointment is limited, say so upfront to set the patient’s expectations.) When it seems appropriate, let the patient lead the conversation, then take the wheel when he or she seems ready to hear your take. Pay attention to signs that you may need to change your pace, including pausing to assess whether a patient is following what you’re saying by asking (in a conversational way) for a quick repetition or summary of what you said.

  • 3
    Get to the point.
    Doctor talking to cancer patient wearing head scarf

    Patients often feel enormous anxiety waiting for a diagnosis, test results, or information about an upcoming procedure. Avoid adding to the suspense by laying too much groundwork when you discuss what’s going on. Start with the bottom line, with diplomacy, then back up and fill in details about how you reached your conclusion, the suggested treatment plan, and follow-up recommendations. Think about what you would want to know upfront if you were a patient, such as prognosis and pain management protocol, and begin there. If patients have the headline first, they may be more likely to concentrate on additional information and better understand its context.

  • 4
    Note your nonverbals.
    Female Caucasian doctor smiling and talking with patient while holding tablet

    Experts estimate up to 90% of human communication is nonverbal. Pay attention to body language: your own and your patient’s. An open posture with arms down means someone is receptive. If someone’s hands or legs are tightly crossed, it can indicate a defensive “blocking” posture and mean the person may not be hearing you. Take a moment to let patients relax by checking your own demeanor. Be sure you’re making eye contact and put electronic devices away (when possible) to send a message that your patient has your full attention.

  • 5
    Practice empathy.
    Doctor talking to patient and family members in hospital room

    Empathy goes a long way toward establishing trust and rapport. You don’t have to share your patient’s feelings, or even agree with them, but if you acknowledge them, you’re demonstrating an understanding of that person’s emotional frame of mind. Find ways to show compassion and remember that patients don’t have the familiarity with a condition or procedure that you do. By practicing empathy to see things from another’s point of view, you can better frame information in a way the patient will understand and help improve treatment outcomes.

  • 6
    Have a game plan for bad news.
    Midsection of female healthcare worker explaining to young patient in medical clinic

    If you’re facing a difficult conversation with patients or families, give yourself time to prepare. Plan what you will say, anticipate reactions, and make sure you have a quiet area to converse uninterrupted. Have the patient sit closest to you, with no barriers between you, such as a desk or table. Maintain eye contact and start by letting the person know you have significant news. Acknowledge strong emotional responses and have tissues available. Never rush these conversations. Make sure you have adequate time to listen, and answer questions with honesty and compassion.

  • 7
    Handle difficult patients with care.
    Doctor talking to patient in medical practice

    Patients may be angry, impatient, slow to understand, demanding, or come to their appointment armed with information printed from the internet. While these conversations can be incredibly frustrating for physicians, it’s important to remain professional and avoid saying what you’d really like to say. If you find yourself in a stalemate or tense conversation with a patient, acknowledge the situation forthrightly. Reinforce that you both have a common goal—successful care—and express curiosity about why the patient is having a strong emotional reaction. When you both feel calm, tackle the problem by listening to the person’s concerns and, where possible, collaborating on ways to move forward.

  • 8
    Use open-ended questions.
    teenage boy explains symptoms to his doctor during the Covid-19 pandemic

    Avoid yes/no questions in favor of open-ended questions that allow patients to fill in the blanks themselves. Notice what details they include—and what they leave out—then ask relevant follow-up questions. Ask if there is anything the patient wants to discuss or if there’s anything else they want to say. By combining your skills of listening, empathy and positive nonverbal communication, you can help patients improve their own communication. When they feel more comfortable speaking honestly about their symptoms, they can better work with you and be more open to receiving the most effective care.

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  1. How can Doctors Improve their Communication Skills? US National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4413084/
  2. Training To Advance Physicians' Communication Skills. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.https://www.ahrq.gov/cahps/quality-improvement/improvement-guide/6-strategies-for-improving/communication/strategy6gtraining.html
  3. The Complete Guide to Communication Skills in Clinical Practice. MD Anderson. https://www.mdanderson.org/documents/education-training/icare/pocketguide-texttabscombined-oct2014final.pdf
  4. Effective Patient–Physician Communication. ACOG Clinical. https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2014/02/effective-patient-physician-communication
  5. How do I improve my communication skills? The BMJ.https://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j2587
  6. Thriving in a busy practice: physician-patient communication training. NIH National Library of Medicine.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10538478/
  7. How Much of Communication is Nonverbal. University of Texas. https://online.utpb.edu/about-us/articles/communication/how-much-of-communication-is-nonverbal/
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.