The Importance of Making Time to Really Listen to Your Patients

Actively listening conveys respect for a patient’s self-knowledge and builds trust, and allows physicians to assume the role of trusted intermediary.

Modern medicine’s healing potential depends on a resource that is being systematically depleted: the time and capacity to truly listen to patients. Some health professionals claim that workload and other factors have compressed medical encounters to a point that genuine conversation with patients is no longer possible or practical. We disagree.

Actively listening to patients conveys respect for their self-knowledge and builds trust. It allows physicians to assume the role of the trusted intermediary. It is only through shared knowledge that physicians and patients can co-create an authentic, viable care plan.

Medicine that doesn’t make time for active listening poses real risks. Clinicians may mistakenly provide ineffective or undesired treatment, or miss pertinent information. All of this serves to diminish the joy of serving patients, thereby contributing to high rates of physician burnout. These consequences have clear human and financial costs.

When a doctor and a patient join forces they can dismantle harmful hierarchies. Each is forced to rely on his or her partner, because neither has access to all the relevant data.

In their medical training, physicians are often taught to maintain a clinical distance and an even temperament. They are warned not to get too close to patients, lest they internalize the suffering and shoulder it themselves.

Patients learn roles, too: Adhere to the doctor’s plan, squelch errant thoughts that might sound foolish, don’t ask too many questions, defer to the expert, be “a good patient.”

In a complex, fraught situation such as a serious illness, people need a compassionate guide — a wise, comforting Sherpa who knows the mountain, the risks of various routes, the viable contingency plans. This physician-Sherpa should be a partner on the journey, not simply a medical operative.

When a doctor and a patient join forces they can dismantle harmful hierarchies. Each is forced to rely on his or her partner, because neither has access to all the relevant data.

Health systems must invest in organizational cultures that value the patient’s voice. Organizations can do this by inviting physicians to share patient stories during meetings or by convening patient advisory-board meetings with practice leaders to explore ways to improve patient experiences.

Medicine is constantly evolving as new ways emerge to treat, heal and cure. We must continually reflect on the changes, and correct the course as needed. This work cannot happen in a vacuum of forced efficiency. Physicians, patients and administrators all must maintain and build on what is sacred and soulful in clinical practice.

Rana L.A. Awdish, MD, is the director of the pulmonary hypertension program at Henry Ford Hospital and the medical director of care experience for the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan. Leonard L. Berry, PhD, holds the M.B. Zale chair in retailing and marketing leadership at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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