The Problem with Doctor-Patient Communication


Male Physician When talking about doctor-patient communication, we often focus on bedside manner and teach physicians to give information in an understandable and professional, yet sincere, manner.  But, according to a new study, this might only be half the battle.  While it has been well-established that patients don’t always remember everything they’re told, especially in stressful situations or when they are receiving bad news, new data from a study done by the Department of Psychology at Allegheny College is staggering.  According to the doctor-patient communication study, 40-80% of information told to patients is immediately forgotten and, less surprisingly, the more information patients are given, the higher the percentage of information they forget.  The significance of this cannot be underestimated.  Lack of patient information retention has a major impact not only on patient understanding, but also adherence to care plans, and thus, outcomes.

Another doctor-patient communication study offers a very implementable solution:  use visuals to help convey information.  If we view patients also as learners, this makes perfect sense.  We all know that some people are verbal learners, others are visual learners, and many are a combination of both.   But, how do we get physicians to accommodate this?  Quite simply (or not so simply?), according to an article examining doctor-patient communication in the Wall Street Journal, we need to teach physicians story-telling  and drawing skills in medical school because these skills “…mold quality communicators.”  Taking a cue from the field of communication design, the article goes on to say that there is much to be learned and that can be applied to the medical profession.  Not familiar with the field of communication design?  Communication designers are “…individuals with an artistic background who have the ability to break down complex concepts, business strategies and multi-page reports into a simple collection of descriptive drawings and words that get at the heart of what is unique or pertinent about an idea.”  While medical schools can’t create communication designers, they can teach students that patient education should come in various forms, including visual, and teach them to surround themselves with good educational materials.  There are many kinds of patient education materials out there.  It could be worth a physician’s (and patient’s!) time to find those best tailored to his or her practice and his or her patients.

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