Does Your Doctor Talk like a Human?
I have a few really great doctors at present, but I think the coolest among them is my respirologist, known here as Dr. Smartypants. Often as a patient, it can seem like your doctor is on another planet—or at least they sometimes talk like they are—which isn’t necessarily helpful for effective communication and getting things done. I’d argue that effective communication is probably the most important skill for a doctor to possess, well, in addition to being smart, of course! And a big part of communicating well, to me, is being able to talk like a human.
What is “talking like a human” in the clinical context?
The whole point of being a doctor is to help patients, so it’s important to be able to communicate effectively with patients. Even if doctors are supposed to know way more than us (because, duh, that’s their job!), it is important they’re able to ask questions in ways that make sense to the individual patient they are seeing to get the right answers, and convey information in a way that makes sense to that patient, too—whether that is through drawing pictures or using models, providing brochures, or simply using words we understand.
While doctors see a lot of patients in the course of a day—never mind a month or a year!—I believe there are ways that they can make notes on a patient’s level of health literacy to be able to communicate with them effectively at each and every important point in the consultation. This is where Dr. Smartypants always impresses me—she talks like a human to me, appreciates my anecdotes, and yet still knows that I have a pretty strong grasp on many of the medical words floating around in her brain. Yet, I also know that she is able to modulate the use of the big words, as I’m pretty sure she speaks with me at a different level now than she did when I started seeing her. While she may just have a really good memory, part of me wonders if she has a system for noting the respiratory vocabulary of her patients!
Talking like a human involves words that make sense to your audience—whether that is a person with a high or low level of health literacy and vocabulary, a person who speaks English as an additional language, or those with cognitive difficulties—and speaking to them in a way that preserves their dignity. It also means acknowledging when you simply don’t know the answer—or don’t know if there is an answer! And, of course, it means bringing your personality into a conversation too—doctors are indeed humans, not walking textbooks despite their smartness! And honestly, I think sometimes they forget that, too.
To me, a huge part of communicating is appreciating the stories brought to you (or, let’s be honest in a clinical context, at least pretending to!). For example, when I told Dr. Smartypants I’d forgot to come to a clinic appointment and I’d gone to the zoo instead, she said “Well, at least we know you were feeling well!”. Similarly, when I admitted to her how I’d tried a medication not prescribed for me (a day where I’d forgotten to take all my asthma meds before the IDEO Design Challenge and Dia just happened to have a Turdoza with her for use as a bad-design example!) she didn’t even blink. In fact, though she could never admit it, she may have even appreciated that I confessed this and told her about the experience!
Being responsive to your patient
A lot of effective communication comes down to being responsive to individual patients, as I’ve mentioned. Whether that’s, for example, when Dr. Smartypants laughed and repeated my comment about the old school spirometer in the office my first visit (RIP? I haven’t seen it in a few years!), or responding to my understanding of asthma, being responsive to your patient is, in my opinion, the best way to communicate with them and developing mutual respect of what both patient and doctor bring to the discussion. After all, there are very few times when teamwork doesn’t work best—and this includes medicine and patient care!
I’ve learned a lot about what qualities I appreciate in a doctor from Dr. Smartypants—including her thoughtful, careful, and kind approach to patient care! (For more about that, check out the Patient Revolution.) If I were going to be a doctor when I grow up, I’d want to be like her—but, given I think the ship’s sailed on that, maybe I’ll settle for trying to emulate some of these conversational tactics in my own life instead. Plus, actually, I don’t even want to be a doctor. 😉
What qualities do you appreciate in your doctor’s approach to patient care?
How does your asthma change with the seasons?