Richard G. Petty, MD

A Shocking Study

I have been teaching medical students and doctors since the 1970s. But there have recently been times when I have despaired about the way in which so many young doctors no longer engage in common courtesies with their patients.

I just spoke to someone who had visited a new family physician. She was fresh out of her residency, and her residency director has something to answer for. She did not make eye contact or shake hands, and could not remember the person’s name. When the patient extended her hand the doctor became confused because she was focused on her laptop.

I know that I can be accused of being old fashioned, but that shocked me, as did a recent report that medical students at a highly rated school are going to be getting classes in empathy and talking to people. This was announced with great fanfare. My question: why on earth do intelligent people need to be taught how to communicate? And if they have a problem in that area, first, how did they get accepted into that excellent medical school? During the years that I was involved in medical school admissions, I would have not have given a high score to someone with poor interpersonal skills. Second, why are the students’ teachers not modeling communication skills?

So first I heard about the extraordinary manner of the primary care physician. Then it was the self-congratulation that accompanied the announcement that students were going to be taught how to speak to people.

And then this.

A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine that left me shaking my head.

The researchers from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that Doctors do not address patients by name in half of first-time visits, even though nearly all patients want this common courtesy.

There has been research on what doctors should wear but little about how they should greet patients or what patients actually expect. Most good physicians have relied upon empathy and common sense to guide them. This study focused on finding out what patients think is an appropriate greeting. He also analyzed a sample of interactions between doctors and patients during first-time visits.

The researchers collected information from 415 phone surveys in which people were asked how they expect to be greeted by a doctor. Researchers also viewed and analyzed more than 120 videos of primary care visits in which the doctor and patient met for the first time.

They found that 78 percent of survey respondents wanted the physician to shake their hands. Nearly all patients wanted to be greeted by name, including 50 percent by their first name, 17 percent by their last name and 24 percent by both their first and last name. Most patients, about 56 percent, wanted physicians to introduce themselves using first and last names, while 33 percent expected last name and 7 percent expected first name.

The researchers found a striking difference between expectations voiced in the phone surveys and the actual interaction between doctors and patients in the videos. While 83 percent of doctors shook hands in the videos, only half addressed the patient by name.

Obviously everyone has their own communication style, but the researchers recommend that doctors should incorporate a greeting strategy that uses first and last names for both doctor and patient. Doctors also should plan to shake a patient’s hand, but need to be sensitive to body language or other nonverbal cues that may indicate whether a patient does not want to or is not physically able to reciprocate or respond.

How we use names or handshakes will also change over time.

Why does this business of doctor-patient communication matter so much?

It is not simply a point of courtesy, though that would not go amiss. The real issue is that relationships are the heart of healing. Relationships might not be so important to the person performing some technical service, but for healing they are essential. If I need to get my car fixed, it is nice if the mechanic wants to talk, but it is not essential. He can treat my car as the hunk of metal and moving parts that it is.

But healing is different from treatment. Healing demands a relationship, intention and a shared vision. An interaction that will create something that is greater than the sum of the parts. A polite, personal greeting creates a first impression that can affect the chance of developing a therapeutic relationship. Ignoring the normal rules of social interaction sets the tone for everything that comes afterwards. It is respectful to use a person’s name and on a purely practical level, helps ensure that you are seeing the right person! More than once I have been given the wrong chart before meeting a person for the first time.

Interestingly, accrediting organization quite rightly emphasize that communication is a critical skill for physicians. Sadly many medical schools put such a huge emphasis on academic attainments that some people enter the medical profession without natural communication skills, and their training does little to help them get better at it. But this skill may not come naturally to all doctors, so it’s important to offer guidance on different aspects of communication such as greetings

My students will tell you something that I have said a thousand times: “You have spent a lifetime developing people skills. You have learned how to talk to Aunt Mabel, how to feel when you are in a dangerous environment and how to deal with that guy at the bar who is becoming annoying. These are very valuable skills. Why did you check them at the door on the day that you entered medical school?”

One of my mentors once lamented, saying that 90% of medical students would have been better served by a technical college than a medical school, because they had no curiosity, no desire to move the field forward and no wish to engage with the people who came to see them. And that was in England, where there is socialized medicine. I did not want him to be right, but he probably was. In fact he was right about a great many things, which is why he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine on three occasions.

If medical schools want to turn out healers rather than technicians, then it is clear that medical students and doctors have to be helped to learn basic communication skills.

One of the many reasons that so many holistic therapists and practitioners of Integrated Medicine are popular is that they do understand the importance of good communication. Not because of research, but because that is their natural way of being.

What have your interactions with doctors been like?

How do you like them to greet you?

“True communication is remembering that everything is relationship — that, regardless of the appearance, no one stands alone.”
–Hugh Prather (American Spiritually-oriented Counselor and Writer in the Field of Personal Growth and Relationships)

“Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships he makes with others and what happens to him in the world about him.”
–Virginia Satir (American Family Therapist, 1916-1988)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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