Hospitalists coordinate the care of large numbers of very sick, very complicated patients, making patient-hospitalist communication very important. When done effectively, communication can help hospitalists improve their patients’ sense of well-being and reinforce their adherence to medical treatments post-discharge. It also can build trust and help patients better understand their illnesses.
Nonetheless, communication gaps do occur. The main culprits include time pressures, the lack of a pre-existing patient relationship, patient emotions, medical jargon, and physicians’ tendencies to lecture.
The following five examples outline common communication pitfalls, followed by fundamental skills that can be used to solve communication problems.
Tick, Tock Goes the Clock
Scenario: A hospitalist mentions a medication change during a brief patient visit in the midst of a hectic day. The hospitalist pauses for a moment, glances at his watch, and reaches for the room’s door handle. When no question is forthcoming, he excuses himself to visit the next patient.
The patient has questions about the new medication but feels guilty about taking up the hospitalist’s time. The patient decides she can ask about the medication and the reason for the change when the hospitalist isn’t in such a hurry.
Skill: Creating an environment in which patients are encouraged to ask questions need not result in lengthy conversations. The key is having a clear framework for directing conversations, says Cindy Lien, MD, an academic hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Dr. Lien uses “Ask-Tell-Ask” as a mnemonic when teaching communication skills to internal-medicine trainees.
“We have a tendency to just tell, tell, tell information,” she says. “Ask-Tell-Ask reminds you that one of the most important things to do is to ask the patient to describe what their understanding is of the situation so you have a sense of where they’re coming from.”
Opening questions can include “What is the most important issue on your mind today?” and “What do you understand about your medications?”
After listening to the patient’s response, tell the patient in a few straightforward sentences the information you need to communicate, Dr. Lien says. Then ask the patient if they understand the information conveyed to them, which will give them a chance to ask questions. Additional questions for the patient can include “Do you need further information at this point?” and “How do you feel about what we’ve discussed?”
The way our brains are built, emotion will trump cognition every time. If you as the doctor keep talking when someone is having an emotional moment, they will generally miss all the information you provided.
—Anthony Back, MD, professor of medicine, University of Washington, Seattle
What’s Your Name Again?
Scenario: A hospitalist wearing professional dress with no nametag enters a patient room and introduces herself before informing the patient that she’s ordered additional tests. The hospitalist visits the patient several times during his hospital stay to discuss test results and self-care instructions upon discharge but never reintroduces herself.
The patient was exhausted and in discomfort when the clinician first introduced herself as a hospitalist. She said her name so quickly that the patient didn’t catch it. The patient sees the hospitalist more often than other providers during his admission, but he’s not sure what her role is and he finds it too awkward to ask.
Skill: First impressions are lasting, so make a solid introduction, says David Meltzer, MD, PhD, FHM, associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of Chicago. Because patients are more likely to identify a hospitalist if they understand the hospitalist has a relationship with their primary-care physician (PCP), the initial greeting should be stated clearly, slowly, and include a reference to the PCP.