Improving your communication skills

The authors of the book Effective Communication Skills for Doctors, Teresa Parrott and Graham Crook, explore, together with Matt Green of the BPP University College’s School of Health, the art of clear communication in medicine and the steps that doctors can take to improve their communication with patients, family, and colleagues

A large and compelling evidence base in communication science shows that communication is vitally important to doctors and patients. However, this research also shows that changes are needed in the attitudes and skills that underlie the way doctors communicate. For this reason, training in communication skills has become an increasingly prominent part of undergraduate and postgraduate medical training.

It has been found that the communication skills of medical students who have not had this training actually get worse as they progress through medical school. So, whether you are a specialty trainee, foundation doctor, or medical student, it is never too soon to start fine tuning your skills. Doing this will give you a head start in enhancing your personal development and in progressing your professional career.

What is effective communication all about?

In these times of austerity measures and efficiency drives, we’re getting good at making the most of what we have—we are all mindful of delivering efficient services with scarce resources. However, we are not so good at making the most of what we are. In terms of communication, this means being able to give people the information they need in a clear and concise manner and with the right attitude. Good communication leads to more satisfying interaction with colleagues, helps you to manage your time better, and makes you a more effective team member and leader.

Learning to communicate effectively means making the most of every opportunity to interact with others: to be positive and encouraging to your team, to show empathy and concern to your patients, and to be able to deal with demands and difficult emotions. Having an understanding of what type of communicator you are and being able to identify the ways in which better communication can lead to better outcomes will help you to maximise your personal effectiveness in many different situations, giving you the advantage in interviews, assessments, and in the day to day workplace.

When do you need to start thinking about your communication skills?

At no stage in our careers should we stop developing and learning about communication. Research has shown that poor communication can contribute to burnout among consultants, dissatisfaction among patients, lack of compliance, and medicolegal problems. Improved communication skills could have a positive effect on all these.

Curriculum changes at medical school have led to a much earlier focus on the teaching and assessment of communication skills. Throughout your medical career, your interactions with others will be observed and measured through exams, supervision, workplace based assessments, and appraisals. In the foundation years you will be expected to develop generic communication skills as outlined in Good Medical Practice. In your e-portfolio you will reflect on your own performance. At specialty training interviews you will be asked to describe examples of when you have failed to communicate appropriately. At interview, your leadership skills, initiative, empathy, and team playing will be tested—how you motivate others, negotiate, and deal with conflict.

How does patient feedback influence your practice? How do you manage stress? These are questions about communication skills. Knowing some of the theories and research in the field will help you to become more confident in discussing the underlying issues. In this way, improving your communication skills raises the profile of other areas of your portfolio.

At all stages of your medical training there is an expectation that you can identify your weaknesses and discuss plans for improvement. The Medical Leadership Competency Framework, introduced in 2008, encourages self awareness—that is, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. It entails realising the effect of your behaviour on others and the influence of your own emotions and prejudices on your judgments and behaviour. The aim of increasing self awareness is to be able to manage the impact of your emotions in your day to day practice—and to improve your relationships overall.

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