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Basic problems in communicating with patients

Basic problems in communicating with patients

Communication is the process of information exchange between two or more participants. The quality and effectiveness of that process is determined by a number of factors.

These factors include the intentions of those taking part and the manner in which they convey their message. In the case of the doctor/patient relationship there are specific factors which affect how effective and productive the communication process is.

The role of a medical professional is based upon two factors. The first is on a practical level and is assessed according to the proficiency and efficiency of their work. The second factor is that which is executed on an expressive level, i.e. how sensitive information is passed on, both verbally and non-verbally, taking into consideration the psychological and emotional needs of the patient. While practical work is at the core of the role of a physician, the expressive aspects are of no less importance, but, they can often be undervalued and overlooked. Effective communication skills are crucial in the quality of services provided by medical personnel, having the necessary skills to converse successfully are an essential part of being a modern-day doctor. Conversations between doctors and patients are of paramount importance because they often concern difficult and complex subjects such as current health status, course of treatment and tests results. The outcome of these conversations can be influenced by many factors e.g. mood, attitude, situation on the part of both the doctor and the patient. If one of the involved parties feels the other’s uncertainty, frustration or impatience, the whole process can break down and it will not have the desired result or even result in a negative outcome.

The role of communication in the treatment of patients

Being able to communicate effectively with a patient can help them understand important information about their health, especially when giving difficult news. Possessing the skills to be able to clearly but sensitively explain the situation can help patients to accept and cope with the emotional aspects of the situation. Ensuring that negative information is conveyed in an appropriate way can make the patient and doctor feel more positive and willing to move on and plan for future treatment. Good communication can build a trusting relationship for years. A doctor who understands the needs of their patient, their fears, concerns and uncertainties can provide the support and courage that can, not only give their patient confidence but also help in the recovery process.


Studies have shown that medical staff have a lot of catching up to do in terms of communication with their patients. Complaints about treatment by medical staff are commonplace, with patients citing lack of respect, commitment and understanding. Patients also feel that no one has time for them and that medical personnel cannot talk to them in a clear and understandable way.

The quality of interpersonal communication also leaves much to be desired. Patients often feel like they are not kept sufficiently informed about their health status or the action taken and planned treatment. They also feel that the use of specialised language and vocabulary is confusing and even incomprehensible. Additionally, not having the opportunity to express their opinions or concerns about their treatment is a cause of frustration to patients. The negative effects of these situations can most often be seen during difficult circumstances, when patients may react badly, showing disbelief, denial and fear. They may even use verbal or physical aggression towards medical staff.

The lack of doctors compared to the number of patients can cause frustration in the latter and result in a worsening of the situation, a patient who has lost confidence in their doctor may visit or request to see a different specialist, therefore undermining the authority of the original consultant. In extreme cases a doctor may even be accused of malpractice.

Communication issues can occur equally between medical staff and patients. One problem is the complicated and specialised language used by doctors, an additional issue is that a patient’s emotions can often hinder the conversation. It is important to remember that the situations in which we come into contact with medical staff are generally stressful for both parties.