The Positive Results of Compassionate Communication

Written by Maybelle, BBN Actress

breaking bad news to parents

In the last decade or so, the medical community has paid more and more attention to the importance of compassionate communication in physician-patient interactions. At one time, a “good bedside manner,” or a physician who demonstrates empathy to a patient’s suffering, was considered a “nice to have” but not a necessity for good care. The physician was a scientist. His or her job was to evaluate symptoms to reach a clinical diagnosis, and then prescribe a treatment to make the patient’s disease better.

But times have changed. Patients are now demanding compassion as their right. And the healthcare landscape is changing to reflect and embrace that point of view. This is all very good news, because studies have demonstrated that compassionate communication is effective in doing more than just making patients feel better – it results in a host of positive changes.

For starters, physicians have an easier time making a diagnosis, and their diagnosis is often more accurate. This happens because when patients feel a physician cares for them, they find it easier to “open up” and share more complete health information.

There is another surprising benefit that positively impacts taking a medical history. Compassionate communication, which by definition involves active listening to the patient, actually makes a medical interview more time efficient. Studies show that during exam time, physicians interrupt their patients after an average of twelve seconds to ask questions. This urge is understandable, given the short time physicians have in modern medical appointments. But it has been demonstrated that allowing a patient to speak, to feel seen and heard, takes less time than peppering him of her with questions. Patients will typically speak for just 90 seconds and give physicians more complete information than they deliver by answering questions.

After the diagnosis, the next hurdle doctors face is making sure patients stick to the treatment plan. This is not always easy for a lot of reasons. Some patients cannot afford the prescribed medications, some are afraid of side effects, and others may have cultural beliefs or rituals that prevent them from following doctor’s orders. Adherence will not get batter until a physician finds out what the barriers are. Compassionate communication allows doctors to find out what is standing between a patient and compliance.

When patients’ culture, finances and family dynamics are factored into treatment plans, adherence improves. Patients feel respected, and they are more willing to listen to their doctor. They better understand their conditions and their doctor’s reasons behind the medicine they prescribe and the lifestyle recommendations they make. Practical issues like finances, scheduling and lifestyle can be tackled together through the shared decision making that patients demand today.

Compassionate communication affects more than the patients. It helps physicians and hospitals as well. Patient satisfaction surveys reflect higher patient satisfaction in institutions that promote good physician communication, and malpractice lawsuits decrease sharply because physicians and patients have a more trusting relationship.

Training physicians and other healthcare workers in compassionate communication may be the most important investment you can make in patients and in your practice.

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