Doctors are teachers

The word doctor originates from the Latin verb, docēre, which means “to teach.” Much of our time is, in fact, spent teaching our patients about their condition, the treatments we offer, and how to stay healthy. Joanne Desmond, in Communicating with Today’s Patient, states that 25% of our time is devoted to explaining things to patients. For this reason, one of the most important factors that patients consider in selecting a doctor is the doctor’s skill in communication (84% of patients say it’s the most important factor in choosing a doctor).

Several communication skills have been shown to impact how well our patients understand and retain what we tell them.

1. Sit side by side, which is less intimidating than facing our patient and creates a sense of shared planning and experience.

2. Use visuals whenever possible. People remember 20% of what they hear, 40% of what they see, and 70% of what they both hear and see.

3. Employ the “ask-tell-ask” technique. Start by asking your patient what he knows about his condition. Then tell him something about it, and follow with a question to assess his understanding. Then, ask what else the patient would like to know and repeat the steps.

4. Divide your explanation into “chunks” and check with your patient after you explain each chunk to make sure she understood. Frequently, patients have questions about what we say and either don’t understand or may not even listen to what comes after that.

5. Be sure to use language that your patient will understand. If you want to introduce medical terminology, use the common English description first and then add the medical term.

We all become frustrated when we spend time explaining and our patient seems to forget or ignore what we have said. With these easy tips, you will markedly improve your patients’ comprehension, improve your clinical outcomes, and become a more effective teacher – and therefore, a more effective doctor.

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About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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