Why do doctors struggle to communicate with their patients?

Many doctors turn their nose up at the art of communication, viewing it as potentially soft medicine.

Last month, the GMC reported that the number of complaints regarding doctors have increased by 23 per cent with complaints received focusing primarily on how doctors interact with their patients. Allegations about communication in particular have increased by 69 per cent with a lack of respect rising to 45 per cent. Dr Niall Dickson, Chief Executive of the GMC, commented that:

"the rise in complaints did not necessarily mean worse care and that the evidence was actually about rising levels of satisfaction with medical care across the country."

Katherine Murphy, Chief Executive of the Patients Association, reported that

"the huge rise in complaints in relation to communication and a lack of respect are of particular concern. Patients are not receiving the compassion, dignity and respect which they deserve."

For several years, medical schools across the UK have taken steps to help train future doctors enhance their communication skills. Throughout their training, students are expected to undertake role play sessions to help simulate situations they may face in the future either on the wards or in the GP setting. These can include anything from breaking bad news to communicating with an angry patient or explaining a procedure such as endoscopy. At the time, I can admit to doubting its relevance. However, looking back, those sessions certainly helped me to improve my patient interaction and appreciate what being a patient may actually feel like.

And of course don’t just take my word as gospel. A study by Dr Debra Nestel and Dr Tanya Tierney at Imperial College looked at the merit of role play during students’ first year at medical school. The scenario utilised centered on a "patient" who had come to see their GP following sustaining a wound to their hand in the garden. The patient is instructed to act worried about the wound using non verbal and verbal clues. And as the wound occurred following contact with a nail, the patient may as a result need a tetanus injection, and is instructed to act frightened of injections. Students are then assessed on their overall ability to assess why the patient has come to the GP and their ability to assess the patient’s ideas, concerns and expectations (ICE). The results of their research found that role play was an effective means of learning communication skills with over 96 per cent of students reporting it as helpful.

Of course role play is just one example of improving one’s communication skills. Dr Alan McDevitt, chair of the BMA Scottish GP committee, recently reported that his mother’s influence in persuading him to get his first job selling cream door to door aged 11 helped him to learn a lot of communication skills.

However despite some success stories, the current evidence suggests that doctors on the whole are failing to demonstrate their bravura in real life.

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners commented that:

"a number of factors could be responsible for the increase in complaints including over-worked and stressed doctors failing to communicate well and a growing culture of complaining."

She went on to say that:

"‘We must always be kind and compassionate. In the end, being kind and compassionate is what is important about being a doctor and what patients want."

Many doctors turn their nose up at the art of communication, viewing it as potentially soft medicine. And speaking with colleagues the general consensus is that patients surely want a doctor who simply knows their stuff, regardless of how they communicate. It seems however the inability of doctors to communicate well is not only being discussed among adults – its transition to the animated world surely serves to emphasise Oliver Goldsmith’s mind set: "People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy."

Neel Sharma is a medical doctor and Honorary Clinical Lecturer at the Centre for Medical Education, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

 

A doctor examines a patient. Photograph: Getty Images
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.