How to Bridge Common Patient-Hospitalist Communication Gaps


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.

“After providing your name, you can say something like, ‘I see you’re Dr. Smith’s patient. I’ve worked with Dr. Smith for many years. We’ll make sure we communicate what happens during your hospitalization. I hope to develop a good relationship with you while you’re in the hospital,’” Dr. Meltzer says.

The hospitalist team should also consider providing brochures with photos of the hospitalists and an explanation of what hospitalists do, says Michael Pistoria, DO, FACP, SFHM, associate chief of the division of general internal medicine at Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pa.

“Brochures can be handed to patients at the time of admission with the hospitalist explaining, ‘I’m going to be the doctor in charge of coordinating your care,’” he explains.

Mind Over Matter

Scenario: A hospitalist explains to the patient that her illness is getting worse and more aggressive treatment is advised. While reviewing treatment options, the hospitalist notices the patient is staring out the window, her chin quivering. The hospitalist presses on with what she has to say.

The patient can hear the hospitalist talking, but she’s thinking about how this setback will affect her family. She’s doing all she can to keep from crying and nods her head out of politeness to feign understanding of the information being provided.

Skill: Acknowledging patient emotion is imperative, because doctors who ignore these signals do so at their own professional peril, says Anthony Back, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“The way our brains are built, emotion will trump cognition every time,” he says. “If you as the doctor keep talking when someone is having an emotional moment, they will generally miss all the information you provided.

“If you see the patient has a lot of emotion, you can say, ‘I notice you are really concerned about this. Can you tell me more?’” Dr. Back says. “Just the act of getting it out in the open will often enable a patient to process the emotion enough so that you can go on to medical issues that are important for the patient to know.”

In most cases, respectfully acknowledging the emotion won’t take long. He says most patients recognize they have limited time with the doctor, and they want to get to the important medical information, too.

It’s Gibberish to Me

Dr. Meltzer

Scenario: A hospitalist believes a patient has a solid understanding of his diagnosis. The hospitalist sends the patient for several tests and discusses with him the risks and benefits of various medications and interventions, sometimes using complex terminology.

The patient doesn’t know why he’s had to undergo so many tests. He’s tried to follow along as the hospitalist talks about treatment options and has even asked his daughter to look up medical terminology on her smartphone so he can better understand what is going on. He wishes the hospitalist would explain his condition in basic terms.

Skill: Simplify the language used to communicate with patients by speaking in plain English, says Jeff Greenwald, MD, SFHM, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a teaching hospitalist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Hospitalists should be aware that words and terminology they think are commonplace many times are medical jargon and confusing to patients, he adds.

“For example, when I say ‘take this medication orally,’ that doesn’t strike me as technical language. But ‘orally’ is a word that is not understood by a significant percentage of the population,” Dr. Greenwald says.

Dr. Greenwald

A good rule of thumb is to continually check in with patients about the words and terms being used, Dr. Meltzer adds.

“Ask patients if they would like you to explain a term,” he says. “You can say something like, ‘I know this is a term many people aren’t familiar with. Would you like me to tell you more about what it means?’”

We have a tendency to just tell, tell, tell information. 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.

—Cindy Lien, MD, academic hospitalist, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston


Scenario: A hospitalist checks in on a patient with atrial fibrillation and uses the visit to talk about Coumadin. She instructs the patient on how the drug works in the body, how it increases the chance of bleeding, and how the medication should be taken and monitored.

Later that day, the patient tells her daughter about the hospitalist’s instructions regarding her new medication. The patient remembers that she should avoid certain foods and beverages while on Coumadin but can’t immediately recall what they are. The patient also has trouble recounting what danger signs she should look out for when taking Coumadin.

Skill: Teach-back is an effective tool that can—and should—be used anytime a hospitalist is providing important information to a patient, Dr. Greenwald says. The hospitalist asks the patient to explain back the information in his or her own words in order to determine the patient’s understanding. If errors are identified, the hospitalist can explain the information again to ensure the patient’s comprehension.

“You might say, ‘How are you going to explain to your primary-care doctor about why you’re on an antibiotic?’ or ‘What are you going to tell your son about how your diet has to change?’” Dr. Greenwald says.

He outlines three important elements of teach-back:

  • Concentrate on the critical information that patients need to know in order to function;
  • Provide information in small bites that the patient can digest; and
  • Repeat and reinforce the information with the help of all the members of the care team.

Teach-back should be used consistently, he says, so hospitalists can build on the information taught previously by adding layers to the patient’s knowledge.

Lisa Ryan is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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