Using Interruptions in Doctor-Patient Communication

Physician checking male patient I’m thinking about doctor-patient communication today. Usually when we talk about doctor-patient communication, we tend to focus on the physician’s communication and what he or she can do to communicate better. We all know that it’s important and that we want physicians to communicate it well, but what, exactly, does that mean?!

Some aspects of good doctor communication are easy to identify. We want physicians to communicate in a way that is:

But what role do (or don’t?) interruptions have in doctor-patient communication? Because communication is a two-way street, and physicians have to get information from patients in order to make diagnoses, interruptions may be necessary and warranted. But how many is too many? Is there benefit to resisting the temptation to jump in and ask questions?

I recently came across two interesting studies regarding general practitioners, doctor-patient communication and interruptions. The first one studied 29 family practice physicians and found that patients were “redirected” after an average of only 23 seconds. And, only 28% of patients ever got to finish their initial statements. Another study, this time of 22 family practice and internal medicine resident physicians over 60 encounters were studied. The findings here were even more dramatic. In this study, patients only spoke for an average of 12 seconds before being interrupted. Interestingly, male residents interrupted patients more than female residents and female patients were more often interrupted than male patients. The study also noted other kinds of interruptions, including computer use, beepers and knocks on the door. See each study for the full details.

Do you interrupt patients? If so, when and why? Is it simply to speed the process along? Is it usually just to get more specific information? Do you consciously try to avoid interrupting a patient when he or she is talking?

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