Category Archives: Communication

Expert patients

Idea came from Prof Kate Lorig, rheumatologist in US. Trained lay educators had better outcomes than conventional clinic appointments. In 2001, became an NHS programme, aimed at cutting costs of chronic disease.

Technology has aided this massively – see “E-patients“. But of course variations in access to technology and tech literacy.

Patient centred networks not well understood. Can have links to health professionals, but can also be tied to industry/commercial interests, may even be driven by industry.  Online resources scored higher with e-patients for convenience, emotional support, empathy, death and dying, in depth medical information, practical help.  Specialist physicians rated highest for diagnosis, technical knowledge (just), managing condition after diagnosis.  So online resources score highest where medics poorest and vice versa.  So combination of both ideal!  Also, medics come and go.  Some patient groups have published their own research eg GIST group.

But behaviour change, specifically when talking about self-efficacy, is very individual and psychology focussed. Less exploration of social influences, other than focus on peer modelling.

Foucault, of course, was fascinated by how people can become obedient, self governing, and how this is produced by the efforts of “pastoral power”, in a similar way to the Christian church and the process of confession.

Trisha Greenhalgh would say that although collaboration between patient and doctor is important, it’s still just one aspect of a whole system that includes community, material conditions, law/policy, social deprivation, cultural norms etc.

Remote consultations

Schedule time, rather than fit in between jobs.

Confidentiality: where you are, where they are! “Are you somewhere private?”

Consent before you proceed. “Are you happy for us to talk just now?” “Can you hear me clearly?”

Contemporaneous notes.  Explain why there may be typing noises during conversation.

Beware if not your usual patient, and long term medication/condition.  Consult with GP or other appropriate professionals.

Prob not appropriate where Safeguarding issues or doubt about mental capacity of adults.

“You may need to justify a decision to consult remotely” – not for your convenience!!!

If speaking with a child, use speaker so parents can hear.

Since you can’t see cues and can’t nod in agreement, good to check understanding and summarise what has been said to you.

Say when you will phone back if you need to discuss with someone else.

Easy to become over focussed on one particular issue and forget to assess more fully.

If becomes emotional, respond by showing you have noticed “It sounds as though you are worried/angry/frustrated about…”.  Apologise if becomes hostile.  Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do.  Avoid pre-empting what someone is going to say.

If parents not reassured, or your assessment of the seriousness of the condition differs from theirs, err on the side of caution and arrange a face to face consultation.

For long term conditions, it may be helpful for family to have a list of concerns before hand.

When ordering tests, discuss how these will be fed back – consider whether likely to need face to face follow up to discuss results and treatment options.

Wait until the other party has hung up.

See also Remote consultations – use of images.

Doctor-patient communication

Consultations – patient’s opening chat is interrupted by their doctor after mean 18 secs.  Patient talk for 40% of total consultation time, estimated by doctor at 60%.

Wayne et al 2011 – less info given to poorer and minorities, more dialogue and more informative with better educated, more literate patients

Neumann 2011 – decline in medical empathy: significant through medical school,  further declines through residency.  “Hidden” curriculum? Hardening/cynicism?

Rosenthal 2011 – humanism and professionalism student module, no decline in 3rd year student empathy.

Chen 2012 empathy associated with women, non-technological specialty preference, high debt!

Roter and Hall 2006 – doctors like to retain authority but poor at managing confrontation eg eye contact, picking up emotional cues of distress

Psychodynamic approach – counter transference (disgust, judgemental), counter resistance (non-compliance)

Narrative as diagnosis!  William Osler – the diagnosis is in the story.

Communication and teamwork “skills” underestimates complexity, the affective component.  Only learned if valued, rather than as something to be acquired

Heroic individualism valued in medicine, cf dialogue

Students struggle to make conversation with patients!  Fear of intrusiveness, failure to connect medical issues with psychosocial elements.

Best – learn through active reflection on work based learning (cf how artificial PBL etc are).  Think about values, how they shape communication.  Modelling of democratic values.  Appreciation of complexity of communication.

[ Alan Bleakley, Peninsula medical school – Homer as evidence of honour/shame/face directed behaviours, cf feminine, guilt directed behaviours etc]

“We teach good communication skills because we accept not everyone has them. But we also need to teach professionalism… We’re happier to challenge poor clinical skills, or to point out a gap in knowledge, than to have a conversation about behaviour or attitudes.”

“We expect learners to improve and progress.  So, by implication, they’re not perfect professionals: they can make mistakes.  It gives people permission to say, “That doesn’t look professional”.”

“We need to work on accepting  constructive feedback for unprofessional behaviours… We want a positive culture, where we teach people to speak up to promote professionalism.”

[Sheona MacLeod, BMJ 2020;368:m768]

Difficult conversations

From “Everything happens for a reason – and other lies I’ve loved” by Kate Bowler:

Appendix 1 – absolutely never say this [my comments added]

  • Well, at least… [minimizing]
  • In my long life, I’ve learned… [good for you, have a medal]
  • It’s going to get better, I promise. [fantasy]
  • God needed an angel [only if you watch Ghost, and you think God is sadistic]
  • Everything happens for a reason. [let’s see if you appreciate my theories when you are drowning]
  • I’ve done some research [have you heard about… Forget what the professionals say, there’s bound to be a secret cure out there]
  • When my aunt had cancer [living it, thanks, would rather not have to relive someone else’s – particularly if this my opportunity to NOT think about it]
  • So how are the treatments going? [not nice to have to summarise it and regurgitate it constantly, please check first if I want to talk about it today, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t]

Appendix 2 – give this a go

  • I’d love to bring you a meal this week [bring me anything, I don’t really know what I need, what are you good at?]
  • You are a beautiful person [nice to know you are doing a good job – without this being some sort of lesson.  And don’t make it sound like a eulogy]
  • I’m so grateful to hear about how you’re doing, and just know that I’m on your team [nice to not have to give you an update, great that you’re informed and concerned, let’s talk about something else]
  • Can I give you a hug?
  • Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard [sometimes it feels like no one wants to hear about how awful it is – simmer down, let them talk]
  • (silence) [the truth is no one knows what to say – pain, tragedy are awkward.  So show up and shut up)

Sometimes our role is just to sit in the rubble with families (Judith Murray).

See Spiritual Care.

Don’t call me brave

Often said to children when they are sad or frightened. But doesn’t help, only makes it seem wrong to have feelings.

Sometimes you need to take a break. And hovering in the doorway doesn’t count.

It can feel like there’s nowhere safe in hospital, that no one understands you. Does being brave mean keeping quiet for the happiness of others?

Instead of calling someone brave, maybe try pointing out that grown ups can feel scared too. Have you explained what the test is for, and why it is needed? Have you apologised for making them upset?

Three strike policy can help an anxious child feel respected and in control.

[Sophie Lyons, BMJ 2018;360:k1299]

Writing a statement

  • Include full name, qualifications, job title and how long you have been doing it.
  • Don’t assume reader knows anything about the case
  • Use first person
  • Who did what, why, when
  • Concentrate on your observations and your understanding (no need for long quotes of what was said to you, which is what a clinical report would require)
  • Say what you found, but also what you looked for and didn’t find
  • If you’re not exactly sure what you did, and nothing documented, acceptable to say “My normal practice would be…”
  • When you have referred to or discussed with someone else, give their name and who they are, describe what they did on the basis of the notes and your understanding, but don’t comment on the adequacy or otherwise of their performance.


Safety Nets

Top tips for safety-netting

  • Be specific in the advice given – ‘If xxxx happens, please ring the surgery or out of hours provider immediately.’
  • Provide a likely timescale for when you believe symptoms should have resolved – ‘Your cough should clear up soon if it’s due to the chest infection. If it’s still there in two weeks, please book an emergency appointment to see me.’
  • It can be helpful to book an appointment for follow up yourself. Telling a patient you’d like to book them in to review their progress in a couple of weeks is safer than just saying, ‘book an appointment if it’s not better.’
  • Consider giving written information and patient leaflets to reinforce verbal advice.
  • Document the specific advice, given rather than simply saying ‘advice given’.
  • Check that patients are aware of how to access advice if you’re not available, such as by giving the number of the Out Of Hours provider.
  • Bear in mind the need to re-assess if symptoms are not settling, or if there is no response to the treatment you have given. Be prepared to reconsider an earlier diagnosis.

[Sarah Jarvis, MDU]

Spiritual care

See also Difficult conversations.

Taking a spiritual history

  • do you consider yourself religious or spiritually minded?
  • where do you get inner strength from?

[Larry Culliford podcast]

[RCPsych leaflet]

All staff play a role in spiritual care.  Definition – “Allow people to explore their innermost feelings and ask the most difficult questions about suffering, illness and death”. Aim to help those in need find peace of mind.

Many levels – speaking with dignity and respect, training in bereavement, specialist spiritual care provided by department of spiritual care and wellbeing.  Spiritual care volunteers also available.

[NHSL spiritual care guidelines]

[Scottish government guidance CEL 2008.]

Staff care also important eg reflective practice, mindfulness, Schwartz rounds etc.

Family centred ward rounds

A study highlighted that the attending physicians talk outside the room as much as or more than they do inside the room.

“It is frustrating to hear the team speaking about you in the hallway before they come in and wondering what they are saying. Then, after they leave the room, they continue to have discussions in the hallway, where we can hear pieces and parts but not all of the discussion.

“We would prefer that all discussion happen in the room with the nurses and the family present.”

The nurses are the ones who have spent the most time with the family, and they have a lot of information to offer. However, the study highlighted that the nurse does not have much of an opportunity to speak during the rounds.

Sometimes, the entire rounds process is effectively over by the time the medical team comes into the room, and rounds are more of a procedural event than a discussion.

Other comments from one family:

  • It would be nice if all physicians involved in the care could participate in the family-centered rounds experience, even if some need to be on the phone. Many times, the rounding process happens but then we are left with a statement that they will wait until the other doctors come by to make a decision. This not only prolongs the decisions but also splinters the care that the concept of family-centered rounds is trying to improve.
  • We appreciate when the medical teams sit down in the room with us. It makes us feel as if we are having a discussion where everyone is invited to participate instead of a group of people standing over us. This style of communication seems to engage the patient and family in honest, open conversation, and it seems to cause the team to slow down enough to listen to our story.
  • It would be nice to have some idea of when they are coming to the room because it seems that no matter what we do, the team comes in when one of us has run to the cafeteria to get breakfast or to take a phone call in the lobby.

[Sarah Pickel, Mark W. Shen, Collin Hovinga.  Hospital Pediatrics  Jul 2016,  6  (7)  387-393;  DOI: 10.1542/hpeds.2015-0136]

Patient centred care

As seen in previous studies of medical students, junior doctor patient-centred attitudes declined during their first year of residency.

There is a clear gender gap.  Female residents were generally more inclined to a patient-centred attitude. The difference by gender was more evident for the caring component than the sharing component.

Male residents became less patient-centred in terms of caring attitude after 1 year, while female residents showed little decline.

A previous meta-analysis indicated that female physicians are more likely to address psychosocial issues, use emotional talk and positive talk, and more actively incorporate patient input.  All of this could be considered patient centred.

Role models tend to be same gender, which perhaps explains why male doctors tend to learn patriarchal styles.

Interestingly, physicians’ confidence in communicating with patients increases more in those who showed a smaller decline in patient-centred attitude.

[BMC Med Educ. 2018; 18: 20.         doi:  10.1186/s12909-018-1129-y]

See also Family centred ward rounds.