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Doctor communications: It's not an oxymoron

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I once took a speech class in which my instructor frequently stood on his soap box about how the American educational system spent a great deal of time developing written communication skills, a lesser amount of time with verbal communication skills and no time whatsoever with listening skills. Since proper communication requires aspects of all three, it’s no wonder communication is ranked so high in priority but so low in performance.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone only to discover that the two of you were talking at cross purposes, often after what seemed like you had a mutually agreed upon solution, you understand how important communication is.  It’s impossible to line up all the opportunities for communication and label them in descending order of importance.  Still, one would have to agree that if someone’s life were in jeopardy for instance we might rank those communication efforts higher than if we were talking about the communication efforts necessary to get an extra helping of dessert.

Human communication is hardly perfect.  In fact, it’s usually so far from perfect as to be in a different planetary system (witness the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” book phenomenon) but it can be aggravated if one of the parties is stressed and the other is not or if one of the parties uses jargon or terms common to their own understanding of the world (for instance the communications of doctors) that is unclear and/or distressing to the other party.  It’s hardly surprising then that the communications that occur when a loved one is dying play a larger role than ever and at the same time are even more prone to misinterpretation.

Fortunately, it’s not as if doctors are unaware of the chasms in their communications with patients.  If you Google communication and doctors you’ll find hundreds of thousands of studies and papers addressing this very issue.  Doctors are also hampered by a few other issues.  They generally have severe time constraints and the topics of conversation are frequently conducted when the other individual is under extreme emotional and psychological stress.  The onus does not lie exclusively at a doctor’s feet.  Patients often enter into communication with their minds already cluttered.

Here are some suggestions for ways you can help to improve communications between you and your doctor:

  • Try to have the conversation in a quiet area with few distractions.  Turn off your cell phone.  If you are having the conversation in a hospital room, turn off the television and close the door.  Move distracting items out of the area between you and the doctor.
  • Make sure that you are giving your doctor all of your attention and vice versa.  The doctor should not have his or her head stuck in your charts.  If he or she is standing, ask them to sit so that you can focus on them without having to hold your head at an awkward angle.
  • Relax.  Try to sit comfortably, maintain eye contact and let the doctor finish sentences (don’t talk over the doctor’s words).
  • Ask that anything you don’t understand be repeated or clarified.  Write down any pertinent information and ask for spellings for diagnosis or medications you are unfamiliar with and may need to look up later.  Experts often recommend taking someone with you to a doctor’s appointment.  If there are multiple items that must be covered, have a list of them so that you won’t have to search your memory
  • Summarize what you understand from the conversation.


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