America loves him. The medical community doesn’t know what to do with him.
An Ivy League-educated surgeon, Dr Oz burst onto the celebrity scene in 1996 after performing a heart transplant on the brother of the Yankees’ manager. He soon landed a regular spot on the Oprah Winfrey Show, cutting open real hearts and brandishing bags of human fat on live television.
A natural showman, it didn’t take Dr Oz long to get his own television show and become a celebrity sensation, boasting over four million viewers a day. He has many critics in the medical community and often advocates for things that make the rest of us cringe, at best, and fume, at worst.
But there is one thing we can probably all agree on—Dr Oz is a salesman, and a very, very good one at that!
Though Dr Oz is an extreme example of medical celebrity, he has managed to create a distinct brand for himself by leveraging one skill very well—the art of good communication. Some argue that his shock-and-awe tactics are responsible for bringing in the masses and making it hard for viewers to look away. Many others argue that his real power lies in his ability to break down complicated medical concepts and explain them in very simple terms. Dr Oz does what many of us sometimes struggle to do—communicate with our patients in a way that makes sense to them.
Research suggests that one of the chief complaints from patients is that their doctors don’t communicate well with them. We don't spend enough time talking with our patients, or relating to them, or we're rushing them out the door, or we're not explaining things clearly enough. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when we don’t explain things properly to our patients, they look elsewhere for that information—and guess who wins another viewer?
As physicians, we instinctively know that good communication is a central part of our role. As our medical careers progress, however, we can get bogged down with administrative work and managerial pressures and lose sight of what matters most—the well-being of our patients. We take it for granted that we’re often the first and only professional source of information for their medical conditions or concerns.
When you have dozens of patients walking through your office each week, losing sight of this fact can be pretty easy. So, when the pressure is on and you have a patient sitting in front of you who needs some answers or simply a listening ear, how do you use the limited time available to make your patients feel heard and ensure that they receive the answers they need?
Humanize your patient
This may seem obvious, but empathy is the first step to good communication. It’s difficult to fake human connection and if we’re being honest, we know that our patients want our hearts as much as they want our minds. But when you see thousands of patients a year, empathy levels can get spread pretty thin.
We deal with a lot of trauma and emotionally-draining situations. Our response to that is, often, to dehumanize our patients and shut our emotions down. This is a self-preservation technique that helps us get through the day, but ultimately hurts our patient relationships. William Osler understood this and countered this tendency by imploring physicians to treat patients objectively while realizing that the complexities of patients, particularly their emotions, concerns, and fears, also need to be treated.
The physician needs a clear head and a kind heart; his work is arduous and complex, requiring the exercise of the very highest faculties of the mind, while constantly appealing to the emotions and finer feelings.—Osler
The first step in appealing to those emotions is to bring your focus squarely back to the patient. Every patient is an individual story and not simply the potential carrier of a disease that needs to be diagnosed. Find out about your patients—who they are, what they care about, and what their biggest concerns are. This doesn’t have to take long. Knowing how to ask good questions will save you a lot of time in the long run. Take the time to understand your patients and I’ll guarantee you that the quality of the relationships you have with your patients will improve dramatically. Not only will you build trust and increase the likelihood that they’ll adhere to treatment plans, but listening to them intently will help you spot potential problems that you might otherwise miss.
According to renowned clinician, Bernard Lown, the patient is telling you the diagnosis if you listen closely enough. There are usually crucial hints that reveal considerable information about a patient and, in turn, make it easier for you to detect diseases and treat them.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
Albert Einstein would know. He supposedly coined this saying while working on some of the most groundbreaking (and complicated) problems in the history of physics. Yet he, like Dr Oz, had a knack for explaining things in a simple way that people could understand. He grasped concepts so deeply that breaking them down into their essential components, and retelling them in a way that made sense to the person opposite him, was second nature.
Medical conditions can be very difficult for patients to understand. You can provide explanations and patients may nod and say they understand, but then leave your clinic scratching their heads.
How do you avoid this mismatch? Use the Feynman Technique to simplify information. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was dubbed the Great Explainer for his ability to explain complex ideas in plain and simple English. You may think you’re great at simplifying difficult treatment regimens, concepts, and medical conditions to your patients, but the more you practice this the better you’ll get (and you might even start to learn faster).
Use these three steps of the Feynman Technique to improve your ability to simplify and explain difficult concepts:
- On a plain sheet of paper, write down the top ten questions you get asked every week by your patients—the more specific and complicated the better. One such question might be, How do ICD’s keep my heart from stopping?
- Next, for each question, write out an explanation that an eight-year-old would understand (in your own words and using the simplest language you can). Think of examples and analogies to challenge yourself and prepare for the questions you will inevitably hear again and again. Don’t forget, you’re not allowed to use any technical terms!
- After writing down your explanation, review what you’ve written and try to find areas that you feel weren’t explained clearly or sound too complicated. This may signal an area where you need to strengthen your own understanding. Go back and review the literature to clarify anything you don’t fully understand. Imagine that you are about to give this explanation to a child. How would you edit it to ensure that they understand the concept clearly? Rewrite your explanation accordingly.
As you practise this exercise over time, you’ll find that your ability to break down complex ideas becomes second nature. You’ll begin to audit yourself as you speak and answer questions at the appropriate level for your patients.
At the end of the day, patients want to be heard and they want to understand. Medical communication doesn’t need to be complicated and there are many examples of doctors who’ve nailed the patient communication problem. If you struggle to connect with your patients, use the techniques in this article to help you begin that journey toward building deeper relationships with your patients.
Want more advice from some of medicine’s best communicators? Check out the Medmastery Podcast for interviews with inspiring physicians and medical rockstars!