Medical science seeks artful communicators

I recently overhead two older women discussing career prospects for their college-aged grandchildren. At one point, one woman said to the other, “I’m not concerned about my grandson. He’s smart and he has such wonderful people skills. He can always go into sales.” Or, I thought, he could become a doctor.

People skills, it seems, are becoming a valuable commodity for aspiring physicians. A cover story in the New York Times (July 11, 2011) describes a new process that many of the nation’s medical schools are using to screen potential medical students. It’s called the multiple mini interview or MMI. The author (Gardiner Harris) describes MMI as “the admissions equivalent of speed-dating,” whereby candidates go through a series of brief back-to-back interviews to demonstrate they have “the social skills to navigate a health care system in which good communication has become critical.”

The New York Times reporter describes the process at Virginia Tech Carilion. Applicants literally rush from room to room for 8-minute interviews designed to assess how well they think on their feet and how willing they are to work in teams. Questions often pose an ethical dilemma such as if and when it is appropriate to give patients an unproven alternative treatment or whether insurance co-pays for medical visits are appropriate.

According to the article, two trends have led school administrators to seek out applicants with strong people skills and good communicators for its next generation of physicians. The first is a growing body of evidence that points to poor communication among doctors as a leading cause in a large number of preventable deaths. The second trend is that “medicine is evolving from an individual to a team sport. Solo medical practices are disappearing. In their place, large health systems—encouraged by new government policies—are creating teams to provide care coordinated across disciplines. The strength of such teams often has more to do with communication than the technical competence of any one member.”

Radiologists should take heed of this new focus on communication skills. The traditional “back room” role of the radiologist has already evolved. But with the advent of accountable care organizations, radiologists are going to have to be even better communicators, with the ability to interact effectively and efficiently with entire care teams as well as with patients.

After searching the RSNA 2011 Web site, it struck me that so few educational courses focus on improving people skills and communication. However, there is a handful to consider. “Quality Improvement: Results Communication” to be presented by G. Scott Gazelle, MD, MPH, PhD, MPH, will focus on recognizing the importance of appropriate and timely communication of results to referring physicians. The course will also identify the circumstances or situations in which radiologists are obliged to communicate abnormal findings directly to patients.

A session to be presented by Michael N. Linver, MD—”Talking with Patients: Ways to Gain Their Trust”— sounds particularly interesting. Here is how the session is described on the RSNA Web site: “Talking with the patient is one of the most important and undervalued services we deliver in health care. This is especially valuable in communicating with the newly diagnosed cancer patient.” The session will cover useful verbal and body language and the importance of infusing these skills with compassion and empathy as well as a special emphasis on the art of delivering bad news.

Good people skills should be a top priority for every physician. When is the last time you put yours to the test? If aspiring medical students can do it, you can too.

Marianne Matthews

Marianne Matthews