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Doctors must improve communication skills

One third of complaints relate to some aspect of poor communication

Mark Gould

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Medical indemnity experts are urging doctors to improve their patient communication skills to reduce the incidence of complaints and claims.

In its quarterly journal published today the Medical Defence Union (MDU) says around a third of patient complaints notified by MDU members involve some aspect of communication, such as accusations of rudeness, or that the patient feels their views and wishes have not been heard during a consultation.

It offers a checklist of tips to help doctors enhance their communication skills:

  • Honestly assess your communication style for approachability and openness. Ask colleagues to rate your skills in this area.
  • Ensure you have difficult or sensitive discussions with colleagues in private, away from patients or their relatives.
  • Clearly record instructions to colleagues and other members of the healthcare team in the clinical records. If spoken instructions have been given, consider how to ensure these are carried out.
  • Check instructions have been understood by juniors, perhaps by summarising action points at the end of a discussion and giving them the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Have robust protocols for junior doctors at shift handovers and when patients are admitted or discharged. Consider using audits to assess whether the existing arrangements are effective.
  • If you need to raise concerns about a colleague, follow your trust’s procedures and ensure your comments are factual, accurate and can be verified. Avoid using emails or social networking sites to criticise colleagues.

MDU medico-legal adviser, Dr Louise Dale, adds: “Patient safety, as well as medical careers, can depend on a doctor’s ability to communicate openly and honestly with patients and colleagues. For example, ambiguous instructions to colleagues can become ever more unclear as they are relayed to other members of a care team and may lead to the patient not getting the appropriate care or worse, receiving entirely the wrong treatment.

“In addition, as doctors are expected to meet the requirements of the appraisal process and eventually revalidation, which involve obtaining feedback from others, they are likely to be judged on their communication skills, as well as their clinical competence.”

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