For a long time, I have been been a passionate advocate for patient and family-centered health care and have spent the last 25 years trying to learn, and teach, skills that foster strong clinician-patient relationships. I have been very fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers, mentors, colleagues and patients who have helped me along the way. Though I believe I have become a pretty decent communicator, and some might say a very good teacher, I am humble enough to realize that I still have a lot to learn
In my efforts to enhance my own skills as a clinician and educator, I have hungrily sought out training, scoured the clinician-patient communication research literature, conducted some research myself and experimented with a variety of teaching techniques and formats. Relatively early on in my personal journey as a clinician-educator, I realized that the most basic skills were also the most important. If we can't communicate well, can't connect with patients on a personal level, can't understand the patient's concerns, how can we hope to help them heal, cope and recover?
The most basic skills are linked to what my colleagues and friends Steven Cole and Julian Bird have call the 3 functions, or tasks, of the clinician-patient encounter (which I have adapted a bit):
- Eliciting the patient's story/problems/concerns/needs
- Building a strong clinician-patient relationship
- Developing a shared understanding of the problem/condition and collaborating on a plan for treatment and self-management
Each of these tasks can be accomplished though the use of specific skills....a long list of skills i might add, though some are more basic than others.
Empathy, in my humble opinion, is THE most important and powerful skill that clinicians can employ to enhance communication and forge strong healing relationships with patients and families. Empathy helps us to truly understand the experience of patients so we can ultimately help them. Through empathy, we strive to "stand in another's shoes" and see the world through their eyes. To be truly empathic this requires us to maintain an open heart and an open mind. This is not easy....and requires clinicians to be willing to spend the time it takes to understand, remain relentlessly curious and suspend all judgement. However, the payoff is immense....shared understanding, stronger relationships, and even better diagnosis and treatment outcomes.
So, I continue striving...and learning...and sharing...now here as well.