Doctors Don’t Like Talking to Patients

An editorial by
Frank J. Weinstock, M.D., F.A.C.S.
Reprinted with permission from Opthalmology Management (May 1999)

If you’re frustrated by your doctor’s lack of social skills, you’re not alone. It’s a problem common enough that doctors themselves sometimes have to remind one another of the importance of good communication with their patients. Here is an editorial by one who spoke up. Let’s hope others are listening.

–Dan Roberts

As time progresses, I’m becoming convinced that doctors don’t like talking to patients. Staff members answer most questions and screen all calls, and the “don’t tell the patient I’m here” attitude seems to be on the rise. It’s especially prevalent when it comes to talking on the phone.
Time is probably the number one reason that physicians don’t speak to patients. Professionally and socially, I hear, “The doctor didn’t have time to explain why I’m having trouble reading.” Time constraints are often compounded by doctors’ fears of not having on-the-spot answers or, in some cases, not liking that part of medicine. Still, lack of communication is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Why? Crudely speaking, patients pay for a service that we provide. They expect and deserve answers that should be volunteered–ideally, before they ask the question.
If that’s not enough, consider what your patients are saying to friends looking for a doctor. The answer to, “Why did you have cataract surgery?” might be, “I don’t know, the doctor didn’t take any time to speak to me. I saw well, but he told me I should have surgery.” Comments like these don’t inspire confidence and won’t lead to many referrals.
Managed care organizations and employers are asking patients about us. How would your patients respond to, “Did the doctor answer your questions?” Every “no” will count against you and could precipitate a decredentialing action.
One of the simplest and most time-efficient ways to establish communication with patients is to be proactive. Answer questions before they leave the exam room and respond to phone calls. This can quickly resolve many of your patients’ fears and concerns.
The physician pool is expanding. Patients will leave doctors who don’t talk and find ones who recognize that it’s fun and rewarding to communicate–personally, as well as about eye conditions. Patients love it when you ask about school, work or hobbies. It makes them feel more comfortable. If you start talking to patients, it’s more likely that they’ll leave smiling, telling their friends what a nice doctor you are.
Frank J. Weinstock, M.D., F.A.C.S., has been a practicing opthalmologist for over 30 years and is a nationally recognized expert in practice management. He has conducted drug and research studies for many of the top pharmaceutical companies. He currently practices in Canton, Ohio and is a Professor of Ophthalmology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Clinical Professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Biomedical Science at Florida Atlantic University. He is on the editorial board of 12 medical publications. Dr. Weinstock is past Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Ohio State University College of Medicine and has written books, articles, and numerous manuals on practice management, in addition to lecturing nationwide on practice management topics.