Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Listening to Your Patients

At one point or another, we are required to interact and communicate with our patients. In general, when a patient presents to our care, we obtain a history although in today’s world of physician pressure to see as many patients as possible during a patient encounter, the check form history has become commonplace. Often, we scan that check form, history form before we are face to face with the patient. It has become my experience to scan that form but pay closest attention to the reason the patient has sought my care, i.e. the chief complaint.

Often the chief complaint may not be readily evident from that check list form but becomes more evident as you communicate directly with your patient or observe your patient when you enter the room or see them on the stretcher in the emergency department. This first impression, is quite useful in addition to listening to your patient’s voice, observing their demeanor, posture or simply observing their state of dress, interactions with others, such as family members who may be present. I try to use every second of my interaction in order to gain the most accurate assessment of their reason for being in my care.

Listening with your ears while observing with your eyes can be an important skill to hone as you see patients. When what you are hearing matches what you are observing, you naturally feel more confident in your ability to get to the root of the patient’s problem but don’t forget to challenge yourself to look at the encounter from as many directions as you can. Having a strong sense and comfort level with consideration of alternatives is a skill to hone.

As I have challenged myself to spend time with my colleagues in theater arts and acting, I have acquired some skills in patient observation. Additional, my theater colleagues and self-imposed exposure to stage and film productions has enabled me to appreciate good dialogue and words. Sure, my actor/director friends make fun of my fledgling efforts to understand their crafts, far more complicated that I imagined before watching them but my best friend, a professor of theater arts has increased my knowledge of how to observe human beings, most important, how to listen to my patients. I would encourage those who are undergraduates or applying to medical school, to take theater arts coursework as it will be very beneficial in your future patient encounters.

As physicians, we should return to our history-taking skills course and directions even if our medical school experience is quite remote. If we revisit our Physical Diagnosis course notes and directions from time to time, coupled with our experience with every patient encounter over the years, we get better in our listening skills. In short, anything that we practice, we tend to hone.

It’s no accident that patients tend to prefer older and more experienced physicians, often feeling apprehensive in the presence of younger physicians.  This apprehension can be addressed by the younger appearing physician/medical student by conveying a sense of interest in what the patient is saying. Listen to every word, reflect out loud on what your patient is saying and repeat your patient’s words to make sure that your are fully understanding what they are communicating.

Full understanding, good eye contact and conveyance of a sense of relaxed interest by you, the physician can greatly increase getting good information from your patient. By making sure you clarify anything on that history check form with what you observe and hear within the context of exploration of the chief complaint/reason for the encounter is also necessary.

It’s no accident that patients tend to associate better care with better communication and with physicians who have good listening skills. In today’s world of shorter patient encounters, it becomes our tasks as physicians to become something of actors in making sure that our patients feel comfortable enough to give us the information that we need to solve their problems.

We also have to develop our observational skills, visual and aural, that will allow us to make sure that we are as accurate as possible in treating our patients. For me, even as I have become one of those old gray-haired surgeons, to consistently and constantly improve my connection/communication skills. The more impaired or confusing patients in my care, the greater my satisfaction in getting their problems solved.

Yes, listening with my ears, observing with my eyes and in many cases, noting smells have all contributed to my connections and communications with my patients. For me, this is some of the most satisfying aspects of medicine. My warning is to not let being rushed to get through your patient volume, interfere with your ability to connect and communicate one by one. In the long run, you don’t save anytime if you are not getting the patient’s problems solved one on one.

13 July, 2017 Posted by | life in medicine, medical school, practice of medicine | | 1 Comment