In medical school, my least favorite rotation was OB/GYN. I wasn’t alone in having strong feelings about it. Most students either loved or hated that particular field – there seemed to be no middle ground. For me, there was nothing worse than roaming the labor and delivery ward at 4 in the morning, listening to women scream in pain and occasionally handling an incredibly slippery newborn. Fortunately, others embraced the field and made it their mission in life to welcome new babies into the world.
My wife’s obstetrician impacts our whole family with her care. She has now delivered two healthy baby girls for us and ensured that their mother is healthy and happy as well. In many ways, she embodies the characteristics of my favorite mentors over the years: calm, caring, knowledgeable, confident and dedicated. Though she hasn’t yet announced it, we know she’s close to retirement, and feel fortunate that we’ve had her in our lives. She’s been a constant in the community for decades, and it will be difficult to replace her skill, spirit and demeanor.
As healthcare grows in complexity and providers telescope into ever deeper and narrower areas of expertise, our fragmented care delivery system makes it difficult at times to experience the warm, personal care we received from our family obstetrician. Industry buzzwords now emphasize ideas like “care coordination,” “interoperability,” and “patient-centered care.” Yet, when I think of how those models or approaches can be most effective, I come back to the simple idea that care is best delivered by good people with strong communication skills. To me, that’s a constant of better healthcare that we can’t overlook. Effective communication fosters trust, understanding and empathy at the bedside where patients need it most.
Information theory, as defined by Claude Shannon more than 60 years ago, is based on the idea that communication can be packaged into information and defined by data. Certainly, in today’s evolving healthcare system, big data is becoming ubiquitous in the practice of medicine. However, I believe that the promise of digitization and technology to improve and integrate our system will not be fully realized if we do not appreciate the critical need for the kind of personal communication typified by the oldest tool in the physician’s handbag: a good bedside manner.
At present, it can feel as though meaningful communication is the aspect of medical practice we’re most willing to sacrifice. There’s too much to do in the course of any physician’s day already, and too little time to spend with patients. This need not be the case, though, if we can learn to apply technology to help communication with patients rather than detract from it. I’ve seen how data that is delivered in an easily digestible format to the point of care can support physicians in their interactions with patients, and how hand-held devices like iPads and smart phones can enable patients and physicians to capture information and data so that it can be thoughtfully analyzed and talked about later. This is how technology augments and enriches interpersonal communication to enhance care provision.
It may be easy to overlook, but communication is inextricably intertwined with healthcare. Despite all the changes we’re experiencing in our system, and in the delivery of care, the intimate practice of medicine remains largely the same. The work of our family obstetrician in the delivery of our daughters (in coordination with the other doctors, nurses, lactation consultants and even dad at the bedside) is proof that enhanced communication makes for better outcomes and a better healthcare experience for everyone.