In medical school, standardized attempts at teaching us how to communicate are made but I’ve always been left to wonder how effective such measures are. Can we really teach someone how to listen? How to feel in response to a patient’s words? How to react in such a way that compassion and empathy are assumed rather than indifference? Medicine attracts individuals who inherently have a predisposition to help and to care. Nobody enters into this profession with the intent of cold indifference. However, many do leave this profession desensitized to the pain, suffering, and grief that they encounter multiple times per day. And perhaps it is this latter point that leads to the devolution of perceived empathy.
Of all the lessons learned in this immersive experience at the Telluride conference, it is the lesson that communication, or the lack thereof, is at the center of most errors and patient dissatisfaction that sticks with me most. It is humbling that the most basic of human skills could change the outcome or save the life of an individual. Yet, so much energy and money is invested in other pursuits to protect our patients. That’s not to say that these pursuits are not worthwhile or noble, but it is worth considering how different our profession could be if communication became the focus of all these efforts.
I am hopeful that the future holds a culture of transparency coupled with honest, heartfelt communication between patients and providers. I will make it a personal mission to teach these skills whenever I can and to ensure I lead by example.