Andrew McDonald (former Chief Executive of Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) was recently asked by the Marie Curie charity to examine the quality of doctor-patient communication in the NHS, as discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13 March 2017 (you can listen online). His report concluded that communication was woefully inadequate and that patients were not getting the clear and thorough counselling that they needed in order to understand their condition and make informed choices about options in their care. Patients need to understand what is likely to happen to them, and not all patients with the same condition will want to make the same choice(s). Indeed my own work  is part of a large body of research, which shows that better information leads to better knowledge, which in turn affects the choices that patients make. Evidence that the medical and caring professions do not communicate in an informative and compassionate way is therefore a matter of great concern.
However, there is a paradox – feedback from patients, that communication should lie at the heart of their care, has not gone unheard. For instance, current medical training is replete with “communication skills” instruction. Why then do patients still feel dissatisfied; why have matters not improved radically? My diagnosis is that good communication is not mainly a technical matter. Contrary to what many people think, the essence of good communication does not lie in avoiding jargon or following a set of techniques – a point often emphasised by my University of Birmingham colleague John Skelton. These technical matters should not be ignored – but they are not the nub of the problem.
In my view good communication requires effort, and poor communication reflects an unwillingness to make that effort; it is mostly a question of attitude. Good communication is like good teaching. A good communicator has to take time to listen and to tailor their responses to the needs of the individual patient. These needs may be expressed verbally or non-verbally, but either way a good communicator needs to be alive to them, and to respond in the appropriate way. Sometimes this will involve rephrasing an explanation, but in other cases the good communicator will respond to emotional cues. For example a sensitive doctor will notice if, in the course of a technical explanation, a patient looks upset – the good doctor will not ignore this cue, but will acknowledge the emotion, invite the patient to discuss his or her feelings, and be ready to deal with the flood of emotion that may result. The good doctor has to do emotional work, for example showing sympathy, not just in what is said, but also in how it is said. I am afraid to say that sometimes the busyness of the doctor is simply used as an excuse to avoid interactive engagements at a deeper emotional level. Yes, bringing feelings to the surface can be uncomfortable, but enduring the discomfort is part of professional life. In fact, recent research carried out by Gill Combes in CLAHRC WM showed that doctors are reticent in bringing psychological issues into the open. Deliberately ignoring emotional clues and keeping things at a superficial level is deeply unsatisfying to patients. Glossing over feelings also impedes communication regarding more technical issues, as it is very hard for a person to assimilate medical information when they are feeling emotional, or nursing bruised feelings. In the long run such a technical approach to communication impoverishes a doctors professional life.
Doctors sometimes say that they should stick to the technical and that the often lengthy business of counselling should be carried out by other health professions, such as nurses. I have argued before that this is a blatant and unforgivable abrogation of responsibility; it vitiates values that lie (and always will lie) at the heart of good medical practice. The huge responsibilities that doctors carry to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the correct treatment entail a psychological intimacy, which is almost unique to medical practice and which cannot easily be delegated. The purchase that a doctor has on a patient’s psyche should not be squandered. It is a kind of power, and like all power it may be wasted, misused or used to excellent effect.
The concept I have tried to explicate is that good communication is a function of ethical practice, professional behaviour and the medical ethos. It lies at the heart of the craft of medicine. If this point is accepted, it has an important corollary – the onus for teaching communication skills lies with medical practitioners rather than with psychologists or educationalists. Doctors must be the role models for other doctors. I was fortunate in my medical school in Johannesburg to be taught by professors of Oslerian ability who inspired me in the art of practice and the synthesis of technical skill and human compassion. Some people have a particular gift for communication with patients, but the rest of us must learn and copy, be honest with ourselves when we have fallen short, and always try to do better. The most important thing a medical school must do is to nourish and reinforce the attitudes that brought the students into medicine in the first place.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
- Wragg JA, Robinson EJ, Lilford RJ. Information presentation and decisions to enter clinical trials: a hypothetical trial of hormone replacement therapy. Soc Sci Med. 2000; 51(3): 453-62.
- Combes G, Allen K, Sein K, Girling A, Lilford R. Taking hospital treatments home: a mixed methods case study looking at the barriers and success factors for home dialysis treatment and the influence of a target on uptake rates. Implement Sci. 2015; 10: 148.
- Lilford RJ. Two Ideas of What It Is to be a Doctor. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. August 14, 2015.