The importance of communication in clinical practice: a medical student's view

Modern medicine is just as much about communication as it is about science.

My experience of clinical medicine is a patchwork of different experiences, different doctors and different specialities. I have worked with GPs, surgeons, hospital doctors and a whole range of healthcare professionals including nurses and therapists. The one thing they all have in common is communication.

The draconian medical school experience of old is an intense education that championed scientific knowledge, examined rigorously and applied subsequently in the real world. Communication training took a back seat to scientific excellence. Today's medical education is very much different. Although a robust scientific expertise is still required, patient - i.e. real world - interaction is at the forefront of our education from the first year.

The application of our new scientific knowledge is no more important than the tools needed to communicate it. The same way as a doctor's knowledge is no more useful to a patient than what the patient can understand. From witnessing GP and patient interaction, the main focus of the consultation was open communication of the implications of a diagnosis, not the diagnosis itself. My experience of medicine so far is that a patient does not come to their clinic to just be told a diagnosis, but to be told how it will affect their lives, whether they will have any lifestyle limitations and, most importantly, whether they will be okay.

Answering these questions requires scientific knowledge, but the communication of this knowledge is an important facet in the training of the new doctor. The simple relation of information must be re-invented to take into context a patient's expectations, as well as establishing a rapport and, more than anything else, breaking down the old paternalistic barrier portrayed by the doctor behind the desk.

Communication can change a patient's experience of a disease drastically. If their questions are not answered, uncertainty can lead to years of unjustified fear. If the doctor appears apathetic, the faith can be lost in the doctor or even in the healthcare system as a whole. A friendly doctor who takes the time to explain a disease in the context of a person's lifestyle establishes a relationship that goes far deeper than one that does not. A relationship breeds trust and it is trust that breeds security in the mind of the patient. My best experiences of being a medical student so far have been sitting opposite a patient, and taking the time to discuss their condition, their experience of it and their plans to live with it.

So it seems to me that communication is a cornerstone of modern medicine, where understanding and context-driven consultation lead the way in improved patient experience.

All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not represent those of Sheffield Medical School or the NHS.