The prescription for better health outcomes: communication

Carol and Paul Delzatto with Dr. Pamela Sutton
In this file photo, Dr. Pamela Sutton, right, talks to patient Carol Delzatto, center, and her husband Paul Delzatto at Broward General Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Alan Diaz | AP 2012

Medical technology has advanced exponentially. But why are patient-physician relationships stuck in the past?

That question is at the center of Danielle Ofri's new book, "What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear."

One thing patients fear most often is that they'll miss out on the care they need because their doctors aren't really listening to them, Ofri said. Patients worry that physicians will dismiss their experiences because they aren't the "expert" in the room. Doctors themselves aren't fearless. Many providers feel the pressure of a demanding schedule and are concerned that if they allow the patient to talk interrupted, they won't stop.

The data, however, don't confirm this.

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A Swiss study published in the British Medical Journal found that the average time it took for a patient to tell their story, if uninterrupted, was 92 seconds.

Ofri followed up with her own informal study in her own stateside practice and learned that Americans patients are similar. Here's an excerpt from her book:

"Even with scientific evidence, we doctors still find this squishy stuff hard to embrace. When I try to dissect out why doctors are so leery, I come up with two reasons. One is that these less-tangible components of medicine—communication, connection, empathy—are harder to measure than glucose levels or number of strokes. Although research in these fields has progressed significantly in the past few decades, it still lags in size and depth compared with the mega-trials of oncology treatments and cardiovascular outcomes. Plus you can't really write a prescription for communication or empathy, so it doesn't feel as real as other treatments (and how on each would you convince the insurance company that this constitutes actual medical care and should be reimbursed the same that endoscopies are?).

Ofri also found that things like communication, empathy and connection are not prioritized on the curricula in many medical schools.

But, maybe after enough medical professionals read this book, those practices will shift.