Patient-Physician Communication: There’s So Much More To Do

A recent Commentary in JAMA, Patient-Physican Communication: It’s About Time, by Wendy Levinson, MD, and Philip A. Pizzo, MD, is a critical call for physicians to be taught how to talk to and engage patients. It may seem silly that promonent academic leaders need to say this even now, but it still rings true. In our current fragmented care, where provider time is at an all time low, it’s ever more important.

Just last week I worked with a resident who was clearly irritated by a patient. “He’s basically a healthy guy” he said, “but he brings in pharmaceutical ads, and he underlines all these words…..and it takes so long to go over everything and some of these aren’t that important.” Not lost on the huge teaching moment here, I thought carefully about how to persuade the resident that this engaged, activated patient is the goal in healthcare, and that listening to the patient’s concerns would not only help the patient-physician relationship, it would improve patient satisfaction and lead to better outcomes. I tried not to dwell on the lost opportunity to model the ideal conversation, or videotape resident encounters so as to offer feedback. So I talked about how important it is for providers to encourage patients to ask lots of questions, and said patients searching online (or offline) for answers is great, and that it’s OK to just reasure or re-direct. With residents needing “the evidence”, I assured him that research on this was ample.

Back to the JAMA commentary. Wendy Levinson is a favorite role model of mine, a fantastic researcher and leader in medicine. Years ago I had the privilege of practicing general internal medicine alongside her at Legacy Health Systems in Portland, Oregon. A key influence in my decision to head to Seattle for a research fellowship, Wendy left Legacy (Portland’s loss) and is now Chief of Medicine at the University of Toronto. She is a force in medical education, driving for better physician-patient communication. Her research, The Relationship With Malpractice Claims Among Primary Care Physicians and Surgeons, found fewer malpractice claims among primary care doctors who encouraged patients to talk, had more humor and spent a bit more time in visits. Her work is legendary, quoted by Malcom Gladwell in his book “Blink”.

Wendy’s Commentary is so important, I’ve excerpted some here:

Effective communication with patients takes time. ‘Active listening,” a core skill in effective communication, requires that physicians listen deeply to patients telling the stories of their illness and how it has affected them. Most physicians in clinical practice, as well as faculty members in academic medical centers, express a desire to spend more time with patients, but acknowledge that they are under intense pressure to be productive, measured in numbers of patients observed in units of time. Perverse incentives have contributed to physicians developing “efficient styles” that squeeze out time to listen because it is perceived to take too much time. Frequent handoffs in transitions of care, increasingly common today, make time to connect with patients even more challenging. Second, medical schools and residency programs provide relatively little education about effective communication skills compared with the educational time devoted to teaching science and technology. Furthermore, medical students and residents are rarely observed during their interactions with patients or given specific feedback to improve their communication.

The authors call on policy makers and accrediting bodies to remedy the situation. Here’s a few of their ideas –
– Reward faculty for patient-centered care innovations and science
– Have transparent peer and patient communication skill reporting
– Use validated measures on patient satisfaction
– Increase trainee communication standards, require competence
– Teach advanced communication skills
– Celebrate excellence in communication
– Have reimbursement that incents great communication

This list is critical but insufficient to achieve true Participatory Medicine. There is another key ingredient. Patients, consumers, family members and informal caregivers must be brought into the design of these changes – even (especially) in academic medicine. We don’t want just patient-centered care, we want patient-centered design. Organizations such as the Society for Participatory Medicine should position themselves to help academics and healthcare build a better design…and make sure we get to the right place – finally.

5 thoughts on “Patient-Physician Communication: There’s So Much More To Do

  1. Michael

    Well said, Sue! I passed Wendy’s article around recently, along with an article in Health Affairs with Ron Epstein that provides more specific ideas about meeting the need for better clinician-patient communication. See: Levinson, W., Lesser, C.S., & Epstein, R.M. (2010). Developing physician communication skills for patient-centered care. Health Aff (Millwood), 29(7), 1310-1318.


  2. Sue Post author

    Thanks, Michael. The question is how to integrate into medical education AND create accountability with benchmarks and meeting such performance standards. Will it get done? If so, how? Will it be for the right reasons, and done in a way that is both feasible and beneficial to patients? What role will patients/consumers play in helping shape this?

  3. Steve Wilkins


    There is a very active community of entrepreneurs attempting to address many of the issues identified by “health policy makers and accrediting agencies,” me being one of them. Non-academicians like me have a real problem “getting the ear” of academia to discuss and involve them in much needed translational research in areas like physician-patient communication – my area of interest and focus. Even with the help of folks like Wendy Levinson, I have great difficulty finding anyone willing to talk to an under-funded entrepreneur about possible collaborative efforts.

    If you are familiar with people like yourself that are open to exploring solutions such as those you addressed above…give them my name.

    I invite you to check out my work at:

    Steve Wilkins

  4. Charles

    I am developing a program for Phsicians who treat GI complaints and one of the topics is Physician -Patient communication issues–basically how to listen better which is one of the biggest complaints patients have who have been diagnosed with IBS and Fibromyalgia to name a few areas. Any thoughts on who I might reach out to to consider being part of my faculty

  5. Sue Post author

    It’s been months since you posted this – sorry that I didn’t see it sooner! There are several academic organizations that focus on communication, including American Academy on Communication in Healthcare. The Society of Participatory Medicine is a growing group of both patient advocates and health professionals. I think SPM can serve as a place to find ‘teams’ who can serve as faculty, and you should consider reaching out that group. Feel free to drop me an email off blog.

Comments are closed.