Today’s General Medical Council story on complaints about doctors reaching record levels contained an intriguing statistic:
the number of allegations about doctors’ communication skills has risen by 69 per cent in the last year.
We shouldn’t let bald stats blind us to the fact many doctors are brilliant at talking to patients, but clearly some – and perhaps an increasing number – are not.
And here’s where communications training by highly experienced journalists – professional communicators – comes in.
First, here are two real examples which show how the medical professsion has lost its way on the communications highway:
We learnt recently about a hospital consultant who walked into a consulting room where the patient was sitting – the doctor didn’t introduce himself, didn’t address the patient by name and stood looking down on the patient the entire time.
If a feature writer approached an interviewee in the same manner, they’d come away with a poor story or no story.
So thanks to a patient who felt ill-at-ease and not respected, the consultant did not get the best “story” either.
And here’s another example from the medical world that shows written as well as spoken communications could be drastically improved:
We were shown a letter responding to a complaint against the NHS. It was full of verbose phrases any good journalist would have cut out, such as “in order to”and “from the outset”. The letter could have been half the length and twice as effective. The author would have saved time, the NHS would have saved money and the patient would have understood faster. Multiply this letter by the thousands the NHS sends out each day and just think what they could buy with the money saved.
So why do we think commnications training, run by journalists, can help doctors and save the NHS considerable sums?
Well, the skills we national reporters have are also essential for doctors:
- We work to many deadlines in a single day. A GP, who should see a new patient every five minutes or so, has to do the same, if he or she is to avoid a waiting room revolt. How good are we reporters at hitting those deadlines? Well, have you ever seen a newspaper with white space?!
- We both have to communicate complex issues in a clear, crisp way to a diverse audience. (Could you explain quantitive easing, the libor rate or the offside rule to someone with a reading age of 15?) You might not like The Sun or the Daily Mail, but you can’t really fault their ability to convey the complexities of an issue to millions of people in a matter of seconds. (That said, I heard a cardiologist recently describe the workings of the heart as being “basically a story about plumbing”…I wanted to hug him for his common touch.)
- We both have to know the right questions to ask. The best articles or TV reports come from posing brilliant questions. Smart journalists and doctors are forensic in the way they elicit information from their interviewee/patient. Reporters learn specific techniques to discover something the interviewee may be reluctant to explain, which doctors could employ
- We both have to make a swift and accurate diagnosis based on what we’ve quickly uncovered. “Is there something going on here? What’s the cause? How did it happen? What will it lead to? Are they hiding something?” etc..
- We’re “people people”. Everything you see on the news or read in the newspapers is about people. Reporters spend hours talking to other folk every day. If people couldn’t or wouldn’t to talk to us, we’d soon be out of a job.
Journalism isn’t “rocket science”; but we make sense of “rocket science” for our readers.
The same probably can’t be said of any doctor who has uttered the words “metastasis”, “haematoma” or “capillary haemangiomas” etc to a patient.
Keep those for the Scrabble board.
Right, next patient please…
Ann Bird is the former Health Editor on The Daily Express