Communicate More Effectively with Patients with these Four Tips

 March 31, 2021

Ericka Chorniak

Knock, knock. “Mr. Smith?” I say, peeking my head around the corner of the door. I walk into the patient’s exam room, chart in hand. “Tough break. So you’ve got prostate cancer, huh? It’s too bad we couldn’t have met under better circumstances. My name is Ericka, and I’ll be one of the medical physicists on your case. Has anyone explained to you what is going to be happening?” I ask. After he shakes his head no, I begin: “Today you’ll be getting a CT sim. We’ll use those images to create a plan. After which, you’ll come in for treatment. Make sure you don’t miss any days because that could negatively affect your prognosis. Any questions?”

Mr. Smith responds “Yeah, I have a lot of questions: what is a CT sim? You don’t have a plan yet? What do you mean ‘one of the medical physicists on my case’? How many of you are there? When will my first treatment start? What sort of side effects am I going to endure? Is this even safe?”

Now, imagine this situation is the very first patient interaction you have as an up-and-coming medical professional. How would you address these questions? What about addressing issues of treatment cost or expense with them?

Medical physics students, especially those on the radiation therapy track, will be forced to address the questions of patients with life threatening diseases regularly in their careers. Their current mode of instruction is on the job training during residency. Faculty in the Medical Physics department have recognized the need for change in this area and with support from The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant, they have implemented a workshop where students can simulate patient interactions. This initiative will positively impact patient care, expand students’ career prospects, and improve patient outcomes, and I believe it will help distinguish Duke students from those coming from similar programs. Moreover, these workshops will help students reach science skeptics and those who are hesitant about medical professionals and medicine.

This patient communication workshop involved two different patient interaction simulations and two brief meetings with the instructors. Students first tried their hand at communicating with an actor who simulated a cancer patient, then participated in a short lecture, and finally put the lessons from the lecture to use in the second simulation. The job for the student was simply to explain to the patients what they could expect and answer their questions. Following each interaction, students received feedback about what worked well and what did not.

These were a few of the lecture key points:

  1. Avoid jargon: Jargon is specific to your field and is often the reason others do not understand the information you are trying to communicate. As a result, avoid it as much as possible. If you must use technical terms, define them so that the listener can continue to comprehend your message. In short, ask yourself, “Would your grandmother understand what you just said?”
  2. Speak clearly and succinctly: You know how you feel when a professor gets side-tracked by some detail they mentioned, and now you have no idea how to take effective notes? That’s how patients feel when you are not sending a clear message. We, as experts, are often cursed with more knowledge than we should share, so we often fall victim to this trap of oversharing or getting off track. Instead, when addressing concerns, stick to the fundamental answer to the question and try not to overcomplicate it, even if it means skipping the details a bit for clarity.
  3. Organize your thoughts: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. As with good presentations and papers, organization of the topics being discussed is of vital importance to keep the attention of the audience and to communicate the correct message. Studies have shown that people have an attention span of ~8 seconds. So, if you are disorganized in your delivery, you’re likely going to lose the patient’s interest before you can get to the message you’re trying to convey.  
  4. Let patients initiate and drive conversations: First-time interactions with a stranger can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when discussing complicated topics. So, it is best to know what the audience can understand and where they want the conversation to go. By putting patients in control, you are relieved of the pressure of avoiding jargon, speaking clearly, and organizing your thoughts into a digestible story. This is their appointment, after all.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this workshop. I learned a lot about communication and how patients might think. I am hopeful that I will be better equipped to communicate with patients in the future because I will have had a sense of the situation beforehand.


Ericka Chorniak
Ericka Chorniak

M.S. student, Medical Physics

Ericka Chorniak is a second year M.S. student on the radiation therapy track in the Medical Physics graduate program.