Demonstrating good listening skills is essential for a trusting, fruitful physician-patient relationship, yet medical schools generally do not provide training on the skill of listening. Though physicians have many opportunities to listen, they often fall short. According to Neil Baum, MD, Professor of Clinical Urology at Tulane Medial School and veteran American Medical News columnist, physicians average a mere 11-second wait before interrupting patients.
Dr. Baum suggests a number of reasons for the pervasive poor listening issue amongst physicians. Our current healthcare system is part of the problem, emphasizing and offering incentives for the quantity of patients under a physician’s care. This is accompanied by a decrease in emphasizing the quality of care for patients. When concerned with quantity over quality, physicians tend to view patients as organs or conditions, rather than as human beings. For instance, physicians may refer to a patient as “the heart condition in room 5,” dehumanizing the patient and discounting the patient’ voice.
Relying on medications as the go-to for managing symptoms, physicians often prioritize and focus on protocol, rather than listening to the patient’s thoughts on treatment for their own bodies. Good listening requires a physician to understand that even medical experts cannot know exactly how a patient’s body and mind are feeling without listening to the patient express it. Along with hastily relying on medications, physicians often do not take the time to inquire and listen to patients’ lifestyle profiles. Understanding a patient’s lifestyle (i.e., diet, exercise, home environment, etc.) is crucial to determining the best course of treatment.
Physicians can improve their listening skills by doing something very basic—focusing on their patients. According to Dr. Baum, this means taking time to sit down with patients and giving undivided attention, free from multitasking. When physicians sit face-to-face with patients, unhindered by a computer screen, patients feel this human-to-human connection. It becomes evident that the physician values the patient’s role in their own health and wellness. Once physicians open themselves up to focusing on the patient, they will be less likely to interrupt patients after only 11 seconds of dialogue.
Dr. Baum also suggests eliminating any possible distractions, informing staff not to interrupt a patient visit unless it’s an emergency. While a patient is speaking, physicians should refrain from taking cellular phone calls and replying to text messages. They should neither read the patient’s chart nor look at the electronic medical record (EMR) during that time, and they should remain seated. Paying attention to any vocal inflections or non-verbal gestures can also help physicians to be better listeners. It may allow them to recognize a patient’s anger, for example, if a patient appears to take on a defensive posture.
Physicians should avoid thinking about subsequent responses while patients are speaking. Physicians must stay focused and allow patients to finish their thoughts before offering a response. Before a physician stands up to open their door at the end of a visit, they must make sure they’ve answered all of a patient’s questions. Not doing so can leave patients feeling uneasy about the visit. Emphasizing good listening as the backbone of a practice not only improves physician-patient relationships and patient satisfaction; it also leads to better online reviews, improved compliance and outcomes, and decreased risk of malpractice suits.