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May 05, 2011

Improving Patient-Provider Communication

How to open the lines of communication between patients and their doctors.

Many patients have experienced it – feeling rushed during one-on-one time with their physician, potentially forgetting to tell their doctor important health information due to time constraints, or leaving appointments feeling unclear about the information provided from their healthcare provider. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too common in the healthcare industry, primarily due to a lack of communication between the patient and healthcare provider.

For physicians, improving the lines of communication with patients is often difficult. Many express the desire to spend more time with patients, but there are several roadblocks preventing them from doing so. Between incentives and pressure to see the greatest number of patients each day, physicians tend to have little say in the time allotted to each individual patient. Worse, the importance of communication is seldom stressed throughout medical education, leaving it habitually overlooked. And once their careers evolve and they realize the importance of communication between patients and their providers, it is often too late. They may not be properly equipped to communicate well with their patients, and the current healthcare system may prevent them from doing so, even if they want to.

And the effects do not go unnoticed by patients. They may not be provided with sufficient time to full discuss their health concerns with their doctor, or if they do, are not afforded the time to process and understand the information provided. This can have a significant impact on proper diagnosis, treatment and management of health conditions, which can have serious consequences.

So what can be done to improve the communication between patients and providers? Changes must begin from the policy level, adjusting incentives for physicians to improve quality of care, known as pay-for-performance. Medical providers must also learn the importance and skills needed to communicate most effectively with patients, through medical school education and residencies at academic medical centers. By revolutionizing the healthcare system to place a value on properly addressing the needs of each individual patient, patient-provider communication will improve, as will outcomes.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Why is communication not an important skill taught to physicians?

  • With so much for students to learn during medical school, patient-provider communication is addressed, but can be overshadowed by the wealth of information that students must learn throughout their education. Later, when students move onto residency programs, few programs have structured programming in communication, and supervisors do not have the time to observe residents’ patient interactions for evaluation and feedback. During this cycle, patient-provider communication often takes a backseat to the many other responsibilities that physicians hold.
  • Will policy changes come about soon in the healthcare industry to improve patient-provider communication?
  • The idea of shifting healthcare policies from “fee-for-service” to “pay-for-performance” has been in the works for years. This means that healthcare organizations would provide incentives for physicians to spend more time with patients, providing higher quality care to the individual, rather than just seeing the highest number of patients possible. The implementation of these changes will take time, but as more and more patients, providers, and leaders recognize the importance of communication and high-quality care for patients, the likelihood of policy changes increases as well.