Is your doctor listening?

Dr Michelle King expands on good indications that shows your doctor is actively listening to you when you speak.

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Communication should be a sharing of ideas, thoughts, opinions, and knowledge in a way that both people receive and understand the content of what is being said.

Effective communication and good listening skills aren’t something everyone is inherently good at and unfortunately not all healthcare professionals are taught this skill at undergraduate level.

How do you know if your doctor is actively listening?

Doctors with good communication skills know how to set the scene at the start of your appointment. Ideally, if you’re being seen in hospital, your doctor should sit down next to you. This allows for a conversation to take place. Unfortunately, many doctors have limited time during ward rounds for lengthy discussions, and this can leave you feeling unheard.

The good listener

  • At the start of your appointment, your doctor should give you an opportunity to tell them what you would like to discuss, as well as letting you know what they want to talk to you about.
  • You know that you’re being heard, when you’re allowed to talk until you have finished, without being interrupted or rushed. You are given time to tell your story.
  • A good listener will not be on their phone while you talk or be responding to messages that their receptionist pops in to give. As much as many people would like to think they can listen when multi-tasking, you can’t actively listen when your attention is divided. Passively listening may result in your doctor missing how you are coping emotionally, as this is something that may be only picked up by the tone of your voice and body language.
  • Once you’re finished speaking, your doctor may ask you to tell them more about what you’re experiencing, or they may ask specific questions to get more detail. This should never be done in a way that leaves you feeling judged.
  • Active listening will mean that your doctor will ask you open-ended questions, rather than questions which require yes or no answers, unless it’s something very specific that they need to know about.
  • A doctor that is a good listener can summarise what you have said to them and will check in with you to make sure they have understood correctly.
  • Some doctors may use checklists or screening tools, but this should never be used in the place of listening to what you need to say.

Explaining special investigations

When it comes to special investigations, your doctor should explain to you why they want to do a certain test and give you an opportunity to ask questions about what it involves. This is so you can decide if it’s something that you want to go ahead with.

They should discuss treatment options with you so that you can decide if it’s something that you want, rather than just being told what the treatment plan is. A good doctor-patient relationship is one where you feel that you are in control of what investigations are done as well as what treatments you want or don’t want.

More questions or discussions are welcomed

At the end of your appointment, a doctor with good communication skills will check in with you to find out if there was anything else you wanted to discuss before you leave.

If you leave your appointment feeling dismissed, or unsupported, your doctor was not actively listening to you. It might be helpful when you book your appointment to let the receptionist know that you would like a longer appointment if you have a lot that you need to talk about, so that your doctor doesn’t feel rushed.

Signs that your doctor isn’t listening

  • You are interrupted by them within 11 seconds of you speaking to them.
  • Close-ended questions are asked.
  • They are distracted by their phone.
  • Your appointment is rushed.
  • They don’t address your concerns
  • Your symptoms are dismissed.
  • Unnecessary tests are ordered by them.
Dr Michelle King

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Michelle Kingn

Dr Michelle King is part of an inter-disciplinary pain clinic and palliative care team in Limpopo. She has completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Chronic Pain Management and a Postgraduate Diploma in Palliative Medicine, and is the president of PainSA.

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