Have you ever left a doctor’s appointment irritated that your doctor “didn’t get” what you were saying? Or were you ever in the hospital and had a complaint ignored? Can you improve your communication with your doctor? Yes! Is it worth the effort? Yes! Poor communication between doctors, as well as between doctors and patients, can have serious, potentially life-and-death, consequences.
How common and serious are communication issues?
CRICO Strategies analysed malpractice cases and found that miscommunication was a common issue leading to patient harm. Their research found that miscommunication was a factor in 30% of malpractice claims, resulting in over 1,700 deaths, and $1.7 billion in malpractice costs. Additionally, 37% of all cases with a “high-severity” injury involved communication failures. Since this analysis only looked at cases that involved malpractice claims, these numbers might just be the tip of the iceberg. Additionally, the study only examined records for 1/3 of all malpractice claims for the time period studied. Therefore, I think it’s safe to say these numbers are probably lower than the actual number of cases where miscommunications caused patient harm.
What types of communication errors lead to harm?
There are many situations where communications can go awry. According to the research, a few of the communication errors responsible for serious harm were:
- Miscommunication about a patient’s condition.
- Poor documentation.
- Unsympathetic, and improper, response to a patient’s complaint.
Why are these communication errors occuring?
There are many reasons why these communication errors persist, including:
- Electronic health record issues, including test results not being “flagged” for doctors.
- Overworked and overwhelmed medical personnel.
- Confusion over staffing roles and responsibilities.
- Miscommunication among medical staff during patient transfers.
What can you do?
Since communication errors can cause serious harm, I suggest you consider the following:
- Ask as many questions as you need to be sure you understand the diagnosis and treatment options.
- Don’t be shy about repeating yourself if your doctor seems to misunderstand your story.
- If something doesn’t seem right, speak up.
- If you think your doctor or nurse is ignoring or downplaying your complaint, be persistent to get their attention.
- Take careful notes at all medical appointments. Additionally, keep detailed records of test results, lab work, etc. Since doctors and other staff members don’t always have access to all of a patient’s records, be sure to share your notes and test results with all members of your medical team.
- Realize that in hospitals, times of shift change and patient transfers are highly susceptible to communication errors. Therefore, patients and/or family members should pay close attention during those times. Importantly, patients and families must participate in the conversations when possible and speak up if something doesn’t seem right.
Read the STAT article to learn more.