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The urgent need to improve health professionals' communication skills

08 April 2021
Volume 30 · Issue 7


John Tingle, Lecturer in Law, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, discusses some recent reports that consider how health professionals communicate with patients

There are certain general expectations that are held by most people when they deal with each other, particularly in a professional capacity. There will be a general recognition that it is poor practice to talk to the person in a condescending tone or other inappropriate manner, and that clear explanations should always be given and material risks, options and likely outcomes stated. It would also be nice to think that there would be an implicit recognition and assumption in the conversation that nobody is infallible and that mistakes will sometimes happen. If they do happen, then they will be resolved promptly and fairly with an appropriate apology.

These are basic ground rules that most people will generally subscribe to when dealing with others and providing any professional service.

In a healthcare context these basic expectations of how the communication process between health professional and patient should proceed will take on an increased significance because of the power imbalance between the parties. There is an urgent and pressing need here for clear channels of communication as the consequences of failure can be catastrophic. The patient will be the weaker party in what can be termed ‘the healthcare equation’. They have an urgent need for the professional knowledge of the nurse or doctor. They are not in their usual environment and perhaps thinking the worst about their condition. The nurse or doctor, conversely, are in their normal working environment and the consultation is a normal part of their daily work.

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