Respectful Physician-Patient Communication

December 19, 2012

Make sure you give your patients your full attention and resist the temptation to multitask on your smartphone. Forcing them to compete for your presence tells patients they come in last on your list.

Handheld electronic communication devices are practical tools that save time, money, and paper. But they lose their value when we allow them to constantly interrupt our face-to-face conversations or force us to have important discussions at inopportune times.

While our society is becoming increasingly dependent on digital communication, the addition of e-versations to our lexicon has both helped and hindered our ability to communicate respectfully. The words you use as a medical practitioner carry more weight than you may realize, and the manner in which you express yourself is paramount when it comes to how others relate to you.

Patients and their loved ones rely on your ability to communicate with them in an honest, straightforward, and compassionate manner. Your colleagues also deserve your undivided attention during discussions, deliberations, and discourse. So does the cashier in the cafeteria and the unit clerk in the hospital. Never lose sight of the fact that people are watching every move you make.

Here are five ways to balance the time you spend staring at a screen with the time you spend looking into the windows of people's souls:

1. Diminish digital distractions. Take a look at your tendency to be constantly available. Is it a self-imposed need or an actual requirement of your job? Consider tracking the urgency of the electronic interruptions you deal with on a daily basis. If you find that you're putting out multiple fires on the home front while you're working, you may need to put boundaries around how accessible you've allowed yourself to become. While you're at it, turn off the bells and whistles that your tablet or mobile phone emits. You can lose credibility with the first hint of an annoying or inappropriate ring tone.

2. Extend your empathy telescope. The medical profession thrives on each individual's ability to put themselves in the shoes - or gowns - of their patients. Before you answer your cell phone or respond to yet another text message or e-mail, pause and ask yourself how you would feel if the roles were reversed. Would you appreciate being placed on the physical equivalent of "hold" while someone you're talking with takes a call?

3. Listen with your eyes. Whenever we look away from a person who is speaking we inadvertently send a message that we're not paying attention to what they're saying. When you are in conversation with someone, show that you're fully engaged by consistently making and maintaining eye contact with them instead of with the screen in your hand or on your desk. But also keep in mind that there are a variety of cultural, societal, and even psychological reasons some people avoid eye contact. Do your homework and show the appropriate respect for the different ways that others communicate.

4. Think before you connect. Mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, can hasten the delivery of test results and enable you to contact patients and colleagues at lightning speed. Contemplate your options in advance of hitting the send or speed-dial key. Is the method of communication you've chosen the most appropriate, thoughtful, or efficient one for all parties?

5. There's a time and a place for everything. Be sure to pick the appropriate venue when sharing confidential information. I was appalled when I recently overheard one side of a delicate medical consultation that was taking place in the stall next to me in a public restroom. Though it may be convenient for you, no one wants to be notified of a dreadful diagnosis with the sound of a flushing toilet in the background.

Just as holding someone's hand has more impact than holding an electronic device, being fully present for conversations adds irreplaceable value to your personal and professional relationships.

Sue Jacques is The Civility CEO™, a veteran forensic medical investigator turned corporate civility consultant who helps individuals and businesses gain confidence, earn respect and create courteous corporate cultures. www.TheCivilityCEO.com.