Hospitals

Patient health outcomes would be improved if doctors would just zip it and listen

It may seem obvious that doctors should listen to what their patients have to say in order to make an educated decision for diagnosis, but it turns out this isn’t happening nearly as much as it should. Nirmal Joshi, the chief medical officer for Pinnacle Health System, took to The New York Times to highlight […]

It may seem obvious that doctors should listen to what their patients have to say in order to make an educated decision for diagnosis, but it turns out this isn’t happening nearly as much as it should.

Nirmal Joshi, the chief medical officer for Pinnacle Health System, took to The New York Times to highlight this issue and how it seriously affects the lives of patients. He mentions a story about a woman who had seen six different doctors for “rapid heartbeat” and “feeling stressed,” which led to a diagnosis of anxiety.

It turned out that she was taking an over-the-counter weight loss product that contained ephedrine, and after she stopped taking it her symptoms disappeared. She never thought to mention it to the doctors, and they never asked.

Joshi explained how serious this issue really is:

A review of reports by the Joint Commission, a nonprofit that provides accreditation to health care organizations, found that communication failure (rather than a provider’s lack of technical skill) was at the root of over 70 percent of serious adverse health outcomes in hospitals.

A doctor’s ability to explain, listen and empathize has a profound impact on a patient’s care. Yet, as one survey found, two out of every three patients are discharged from the hospital without even knowing their diagnosis. Another study discovered that in over 60 percent of cases, patients misunderstood directions after a visit to their doctor’s office. And on average, physicians wait just 18 seconds before interrupting patients’ narratives of their symptoms.

Three years ago in Harrisburg, Pa., Joshi and his colleagues started a program to evaluate and improve how physicians communicate with their patients. The initial results were startling. “Observation soon revealed that physicians introduced themselves on only about one in four occasions,” he wrote. “And without an introduction, it’s no surprise that patients could correctly identify their physician only about a quarter of the time.”

After creating a new training program for the physicians, they did see a lot of improvement, so it’s clear that putting in the effort toward change is a feasible feat.

Hopefully more hospitals and offices take on similar projects and over time, health outcomes won’t be so drastically affected by the absence of simply asking questions and listening.