“You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”
The other day I went to Starbucks before my clinic. The cashier asks me for my order and shouts it out to the person at the espresso bar. I said hello to the person behind me and walked to the pick up counter. My drink comes up. I thanked the barrister and went to the condiment bar. I smiled at another patron as we put cream and sugar in our caffeinated beverages. Walking to my car, I waved to the person in the car that let me cross the street. Then I was off to clinic. During this time, I counted no less than five interactions with people. For the most part, the day to day interactions with people on the street or in a store do not cause much of a problem. Knowingly or not, we all make quick judgments about people without consciously realizing it. It is human nature.
For the most part, physicians and nurses are well intentioned people. Everyday physicians and surgeons have multiple patient encounters. Just like the patrons of Starbucks or the people we may pass on the street, patients pass judgments on the physician based on a number of factors. Many of the factors used in making the prejudgment are out of the physicians control. Like patients, physicians also prejudge the patients. For the majority of encounters, there are no problems. Patients are either happy or indifferent, and we all go about our day. On other occasions, there are the interactions that don't go as we planned. Because of the volume of encounters physicians have, eventually there will be a bad interaction that cause a patient to fire the physician, or seek second opinions.
The other day one of my residents had a patient fire him. Understandably, he was quite upset. I heard his side of the story and witness' accounts of the interaction. To me, it sounds like the good intentions the resident perceived wrong and the questions of the patients were seen as hostile. I don't think that either party involved intended for this to be the case, but it is what it is. It brought up the topic of how do you deal with these situations. Anyone who has seen patients has had a bad patient encounter. There will be patients who will not be happy with what you say or the way you say it. People will go for second opinions. They will choose another doctor over you. It happens. It is a fact of life. How do we/you deal with it?
When doing an After Action Review (AAR) of the situation, the first step is not to take it personal. Of course, that is easier said than done. Don't blame yourself or the patient and above all, don't "blow off" the incident. Second, you must look at what role you played in making this a bad encounter. You must look at yourself critically and be brutally honest with yourself. Remember, for every bad encounter you have, there is only one common thread, you. Finally, you must look at what changes you can make to prevent a similar situation from happening. It seems like a lot to do, but it isn't. This is a simple exercise to improve your self-awareness. You must be self-aware and/or you must have people around you who will honestly tell you about yourself. This is not a time to have a "yes" man. Although a bad encounter is emotionally distressing and self-deflating, it provides the opportunity for the most growth as a clinician.
When I look at my personal experience and observation of others, the common flaw is communication. In the past, physicians were presumed to learn their "soft" communication skills at patients' bedsides, in their rounds as residents, and as students observing master clinicians and their interactions with patients. Today, the communication and interpersonal skills of the physician-in-training are no longer seen as immutable personal styles that emerge during residency but, instead, as a set of measurable and modifiable behaviors that can evolve. During the typical 15- or 20-minute patient-physician encounter, the physician makes immeasurable choices regarding the words, questions, silences, tones, and facial expressions he or she chooses. These choices either enhance or detract from the patient's perception of the physician's clinical skill. From obtaining the patient's medical history to conveying a treatment plan, the physician's relationship with his patient is built his/her ability to communicate. In these encounters, both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication constitute this essential feature of clinical practice.
What are some tips at improving the effectiveness of our communication?
2. Assess what the patient wants to know
3. Be empathetic
4. Slow down
5. Tell the truth
6. Keep it simple
7. Be hopeful
8. Watch the patient's body and face
9. Be Prepared for a Reaction
In the end, the patient-physician dialogue is not finished after discussing a diagnosis, tests results, or proposed treatments. For the patient, this is just a beginning. As a surgical sub-specialist, we are not typically the most effective communicators. It is not uncommon for the surgical sub-specialist to be seen as an uncaring technician. In today's ever changing medical world, we need to be better. With internet access to information, patients are becoming more educated consumers. Many patients are not acutely aware of a physician's technical skills, but they do know how a physician makes them feel. Regardless of how technically skilled you are, it is you communication skills that will be remembered.
People in the service industries understand the importance of the initial consumer perceptions. At Starbucks, the young cashier greets you with a smile. Takes your order, asks if you would like anything else, gives you your change, and tells you to have a nice day. We expect this as a consumer. The medical field is a service industry and patients the consumers. Should they expect anything less?
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”