Hospital rounds: How’s the doctor-patient communication system?

by Daniel Kamin on September 13, 2011

(Andreas Gohr/Flickr)

When patients are sick enough to require hospitalization, medical decisions often involve nontrivial tradeoffs between risks and benefits. They require discussions with patients and families from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. And sometimes these discussions break down.

Patient-clinician communication is increasingly recognized as an integral part of clinician competency. Indeed, family-centered rounding, increasingly practiced at Children’s Hospital Boston, is a critical step in this direction. Fully adopting this practice surely will enhance communication quality.

Yet, I suspect we’re still missing cues from patients and families, signs that our alliances with them are not sound. We can’t be maximally perceptive all of the time. It is busy, we are tired, we want to teach, we want to be efficient, and we want to get to the noon conference to learn to be better doctors.

Initial decision-making currently works about the same for every hospitalized patient. My experience is in inpatient gastroenterology. We review the medical data outside the room and make a plan. Then we walk into the room, make introductions, ask how things are going, do an exam, review the plan for the day, and move on to another patient.

Often this works well. But it’s not always apparent what patients or families really think about these conversations. When they misfire, we may find out hours or even days later that families have refused care or had harsh exchanges with staff.

Including communication as a system in work rounds – with the seriousness and respect given to organ systems — conveys that communication is clinically relevant.

Relationship repair follows, with a frank and caring approach. Our resident and fellow trainees learn critical communication skills through these conversations. Nevertheless, might there be a way to avoid some of these “flare ups”?

As doctors discuss impressions and plans for patient care, we often organize our thoughts into organ systems. I’d offer that we need to review another system – the communication system. This means recapping the communication successes or failures with respect to decision-making among the medical team, the patient/parents, and other staff, and considering changes in strategy if needed.

In a conversation with our GI fellows, a faculty gastroenterologist recently compared two families in her practice. One she approached with an authoritative style, the other with a patient-driven style, simply presenting the options. Because she had known each family for a long time, she understood how they wanted to make decisions, and felt her approach was the best in each case.

Explicitly evaluating communication will help us notice cues that our relationships with patients or parents need tending to. An exchange on our GI Inpatient Service might then sound like this:

[outside hospital room:]

Dr. Smart (Second Year Admitting Resident): John is an 8-year-old boy with a 5-month history of ulcerative colitis, now flaring for the third time requiring a third hospitalization. The differential includes C. difficile colitis, and less likely bacterial dysentery, viral gastroenteritis or atypical response to a medication. Related problems include underweight, worsening anemia, and an unusual rash. From a cardiovascular standpoint…

[two minutes later:]

From a communications standpoint, my conversation with Mother last night suggests, understandably, that she is scared and angry. When I said that John couldn’t eat, she rolled her eyes and started sending a text. I didn’t discuss this with her yet.

Stacy (Nurse): I am glad you said that. I also couldn’t seem to do a right thing in there without Mother glaring or rolling her eyes. I mentioned that the intravenous steroids were ordered, and she just shook her head.

Dr. Right, GI Fellow: Thanks, Stacy. We have emailed our social worker and John’s outpatient gastroenterologist. I think it is best if Dr. Smart introduces us, guides us to the pertinent parts of the exam, then I sum up and begin discussing the plan. Since Dr. Peace knows Mother well, she can mention communication with John’s outside gastroenterologist, Dr. Joy, and help maneuver if there is tension.

Dr. Peace, GI Attending: Sounds like a good plan, Dr. Right.

[inside room, five minutes later:]

Dr. Right: …so, we do think it makes sense to start intravenous steroids again…

Mother [interrupting]: Nope. We aren’t doing that. I knew you would be starting those stupid steroids again. That doesn’t make any sense to me.  None of this is helping.

Dr. Peace: We are all really sorry to see that John continues to be sick. We’ve talked with Dr. Joy briefly, but it is true that we didn’t specifically talk about when we would start the intravenous steroids again. You seem mad, and I don’t think we appreciated your feelings about intravenous steroids.

Mother: Yes, no one listens to me. They make John crazy and his ADHD goes through the roof. I am also so tired. I want to talk with Dr. Joy.

Dr. Peace: Okay. We of course want to make sure we are all on same page about the intravenous steroids.  Maybe it makes sense for us to continue to hydrate John, keep tabs on his blood counts, and if he feels like it, he can have a simple breakfast like oatmeal or a bagel. It is early I know—you could get a little rest and when we are done with our rounds we will see if we can get Dr. Joy on the telephone and we can discuss the steroids or other plans together?

Mother: Fine. Yes, I am angry, I am sorry if I interrupted and come across mean. I am just tired and I’ve had it.

Dr. Right: That’s okay. It is a rough day. We’ll see you later, then.

The conversation may have naturally produced the same result even if the team hadn’t addressed the communications system squarely before entering the room. On the other hand, Dr. Peace might have answered a page during the conversation, not knowing that it was important to be present for the entire discussion. Or Dr. Smart might have tried convincing Mother that steroids were necessary. Or Dr. Right might have simply suggested discussing the steroids later, confirming Mother’s view that she wasn’t being taken seriously.

Including communication as a system in work rounds – with the seriousness and respect given to organ systems — tells physicians, nurses, dieticians and social workers alike that successful communication and relationship building are clinically relevant. And that we have the opportunity to notice our successes and mend our disconnections every day.

Daniel Kamin, MD, was the initial medical director of intestinal transplantation at Children’s Hospital Boston, and recently has turned his career towards GI education. He is a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee at Children’s, and hopes to further explore the ethical frontier between the decisions made by doctors and patients.


  • Cristin Lind

    Wonderful post. You’re reminding me that as a parent (of one of your patients, in fact), I do a much better job when I feel seen and my experience feels validated. Good communication skills like the ones you outline create a space for that. It just takes a moment, and then I can move back into “clinical Mom” mode. Keep in mind though that not all parents will show signs that they think communication is breaking down. It would be wonderful if there was a way to check in with them regardless of whether they roll their eyes or show hostility. Thanks again-we’re so lucky to have you as our doc.

  • Chinadoll2you

    Sounds to me, like ‘Mom” feels my pain - no one entry person. In other words, too many cooks and not enough kitchen. As for the team, where is Mom’s support and where is the empathy? Perhaps she had been dealing with multiple doctors, in and out of the ER and now that her child is FINALLY hospitalized and someone is going to take a look at him as a whole, they totally see right through her - as if she is an invisible member of the team who’s only need is to sign for further treatment of her child.

    On the flip side, glad this is being addressed. BUT…these ‘team approaches’ need to be taken for out patient children too. If a child is seeing more than 2 specialists @ your hospital, you need to set them up with a coordinator REGARDLESS of whether they are inpatient or out patient - this is why some are heading back to the smaller hospitals - because the parents AND the child feel like they matter in the other settings.

  • Daniel Kamin

    thanks for these comments.  I agree that parents may not show signs, and may not even be able to label as a ‘communication problem’ — just that they are frustrated or confused etc. I think it is part of our job to identify and probe  to make sure these aspects are addressed adequately.  This is why it  would be good  to be part of every work rounds in hospital. 

    I hear you on the ‘too many cooks’.  It is always better to have someone in charge, and the less this is so, the more decisions weigh parents and patients down unfairly.  Your idea for outpatient approach in this way is a really nice extension to this idea. For me, I’ll try this first inpatient and then broaden if it works!  Daniel Kamin 

  • JMD

    That’s a very nice article, except I’m not sure I’d like to hear “You seem mad” from a doctor in this situation. And I wish the parting comments were slightly more compassionate than “That’s okay. It is a rough day. We’ll see you later, then.” Yes, I know that John is the patient, but parents need help too in these situations.

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