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Effective Communication with Patients—More Important Than Pill Shoving

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
December 19, 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging on, millions of patients and families are feeling desperate trying to understand and decipher the medical jargon and what it means for their specific cases. The internet may be helping with tons of data available about treatment protocols, do’s and don’ts, sharing of personal experiences, vaccine news and statistics. However, when patients suffering from COVID-19 or from other ailments need to be hospitalized, the situation is grim. It is not always easy to find someone who can communicate clearly with the patient or his family about the medical case, the treatment options available and next steps.

Effective communication in the medical field is part and parcel of medical training and should be a core element in the evaluation of the medical service offered to citizens. However, and especially during the pandemic, when the medical staff are under a lot of pressure, many times communication is perceived as a low-ranking priority. The focus becomes how to treat the patient and how to follow procedures, with no attention directed to explaining what is happening. Both the patient and family become clueless and bewildered; without a doubt, this affects the effectiveness of the treatment. We have to remember that the human body is not a set of mechanical operations that need fixing, but rather is definitely more sublime than that. We are working with a soul, with a complicated psychological configuration that has to be dealt with very carefully.

Some of the common pitfalls in communication between doctors and patients include the following:

  • Throwing in Jargon: Doctors, especially young ones, like to prove themselves and show that they are experts in their fields. Therefore, they tend to use a lot of complicated jargon in communicating with the patient and his or her family about the medical situation.
  • Excessive Bluntness: Explaining the truth to the patient and his or her family is important and called for, but being totally pessimistic and overemphasizing the negative scenarios, more than the possible positive outcomes, is sometimes a common mistake.
  • Overpromising Wellness: Some old-school doctors tend to overpromise the patient and his or her attendants that everything will turn out for the better, even though the patient may be in a severe critical condition. This may be out of a belief that by giving false reassurances, the patient and family will calm down, or it may be that there is very little that can be done, so let us avoid confrontations.
  • Indecisiveness: When doctors are not sure what to do and do not want to take any risks, they may pass the bucket to the patients’ families, asking them to decide on the patient’s behalf about the choice of alternative procedures. Patients and families have to rely on google to collect information and decide, whereas the physicians who have spent a life time studying medicines, refrain from helping them choose the right alternative. This happens especially in difficult situations when all the available alternatives entail a high level of risk.
  • Lack of Empathy: Yes, doctors and medical staff treat patients as “cases” and are not supposed to empathize with each case, or else they would not be able to continue on this job. However, in communicating with patients and their families, it would not hurt for the doctors to show a minimum level of empathy.
  • Abruptness: Doctors are busy and so they cut the patients short when they try to explain their ailments. Effective communication means listening attentively to patients. This should be considered part of the treatment.
  • Ridiculing Patients’ Internet Information: When patients ask technical questions based on information gleaned from a quick surfing of the internet, doctors get very upset—especially older doctors not used to patients having access to medical information. True some of the patients may be misinformed, and may have derived their information from unreliable sources, but doctors still need to be more tolerant in explaining the ailment to the patient. A better strategy would be to guide the patient to reliable sources for information about the specific ailment that would help answer many of the questions he or she may have.
  • Lack of Patience: Medical staff need to understand that this may be the patient or attendants’ first time in a hospital or emergency ward. They do not know the procedures and may have different expectations. There is a need for a lot of patience in tending to the patients’ needs and their frequent requests either for information, or for care.
  • Unfriendly Body Language: Nurses may be overworked or in a rush and thus may slam doors, snatch items from the patient’s bed and go about their business without a hint of a smile, thinking that this is professional behavior. It is not. A smile and a nice word with a patient may work miracles towards recovery.

There needs to be a better sync between what is studied in medical schools in terms of effective communication, and what gets to be practiced on the ground. Even the pandemic is no excuse for ineffective communication.


Author: Laila El Baradei is a Professor of Public Administration at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the American University in Cairo. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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