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
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.