Expert Perspectives: How Important are Communication Skills in a Medical Office?

Imagine your day is interrupted by a phone call. You’re told to rush to the hospital because one of your family members has been seriously injured in a car accident. They’ll need surgery—brain surgery. You’ve been thrust into a stressful situation and your mind is racing. You have fears. You have questions. The health of someone you love is on the line. Who is going to explain everything? What happens next?

Whether you’re the patient or the patient’s family member, one of the first people you’re likely to meet at the hospital is someone like Eileen Muench, a Physician Assistant (PA) in a neurosurgical practice. MediSolutions spoke with Eileen to get a better sense of how much of a role communication plays in medical care. She gave us a snapshot of a typical day and insight into the communication skills and tools she and her colleagues rely on to care for their patients.

“Communication is key.” You’ve probably heard those words applied to marriages and dating relationships. However, communication is of critical importance in the field of medicine as well. As a medical professional, you are called upon to communicate effectively with your patients as well as your colleagues.

As a PA, Eileen is often the first person a patient interacts with. She conducts the initial consultation after discussing the patients presentation with the emergency department staff—getting the patient’s medical history and performing the physical exam. She then presents her findings to the neurosurgeon as they both review any diagnostic imaging, MRI’s or CT scans that have been performed. The neurosurgeon will log in and review imaging remotely. The PA and neurosurgeon are looking at the same images together, while only the PA is physically there with the patient. Technology makes this extension of care possible.

However, Eileen, isn’t just one of the first points of contact for most patients, she is also the person they deal most consistently with until the course of treatment is completed. Physician Assistants like Eileen act as a liaison between patients and attending physicians—offering information and answering questions. It is important that she establish a good rapport at the onset.

Because many cases are emergencies, Eileen is often called upon to be a source of comfort as well as information. She must routinely deal with patients who need care due to completely unexpected (and often earth-shattering) circumstances, and who are not medical experts who fully comprehend their condition.

Despite the understandable stress of the situation, it’s Eileen’s job to express her confidence in her surgical team and help her patients and their families feel less overwhelmed by their circumstances. As Eileen says, “you really want to forge good and open communication. You want to be truthful regarding the situation and available to answer any questions. You try to alleviate the patient’s and the family’s fear as much as possible.”

What are some of the hallmarks of communicating well with a patient and his/her family? According to Eileen, “speaking as clearly as you can, answering all their questions on their level, looking people in the eye, and telling them (to the best of your ability at that time) what they can expect. Communication is key.”

Occasionally more is communicated with actions than with words. As Eileen says, “sometimes there’s nothing to say, but your presence says something. For example, you just need to be present for the family of someone who has passed away. If you can pause and be there, it speaks for you. You don’t have to talk.”

The members of Eileen’s practice operate as a team, collaborating and asking for consults when necessary, and each person’s role requires timely communication. As a physician assistant, Eileen is often the eyes and ears of her attending physicians as she makes hospital rounds. In those instances, it falls to her to make medical judgments and communicate her recommendations.

In order to do their jobs, Eileen and the members of her team must be able to relay information in a timely and accurate way. The cellphone is an invaluable tool. Eileen has both her office’s EMR (electronic medical records) system and dictation application on her phone. Her team also uses their phones to communicate in ways most of us would find very familiar—sending texts and emails. “If there weren’t cellphones, I don’t know what we would do,” says Eileen. “We have a group text that the surgeons and the PAs are on. Everybody texts, so everybody is on the same page, which is awesome. In the morning, when I’m home drinking my coffee, I find out what happened overnight. Does anything need to be addressed first thing in the morning? Does anything need to be followed up on?”

As you can see, Eileen’s ability to communicate is tested on two fronts. She must communicate with her patients as well as with her colleagues. Both are needed in order to keep her practice running effectively and efficiently. Good communication helps medical teams like Eileen’s give their patients the best care possible.