A Physician’s Guide to Communicating with Your Medical Team

March 27, 2023
Effective communication and interpersonal skills are necessary for a well-functioning medical team. As a practicing or aspiring physician, it is your duty to set an example in proper communication for your team members. 
Whether you’re a resident learning clinical duties or an attending physician, these strategies are sure to improve communication among your medical team.

Why is Effective Communication so Essential?

In the modern healthcare system, a physician interacts with various physician specialists, nurses, students, and other medical staff. Numerous patient handoffs among this multitude of clinicians with various backgrounds and training can create various challenges. 

During a short hospital stay, a patient may interact with dozens of different hospital employees. As a physician, successfully navigating these challenges will help you build patient rapport as well as enhance your workflow, job satisfaction, and patient outcomes. 

Your staff and colleagues deserve a similar level of respect. Especially for those working in healthcare during the pandemic. When you encounter a difficult interaction, keep in mind that the other party may be having a bad day dealing with feelings of stress or burnout, which has risen dramatically for healthcare workers. 

Approach your colleagues with understanding and empathy as much as possible. In particular, try the following tips when communicating with those on your medical team.

Communicating with Medical Students 

Many residencies are a smart part of a larger academic institution. If you work at such a program, you will likely experience a month or more with rotating medical students. This provides a wonderful opportunity to teach and display your skills as a role model. 

I often find that you learn best from those closest to you in age and training. Whether it’s the relatability, similar ages, or styles of teaching, I learned the most from my residents. Use these tips to teach a thing or two to any students who are fortunate enough to rotate with you!  

1. Introductions

  • Learn and use students’ names.
  • Use inclusive language and ask for your students’ pronouns! Some students may not go by “he” or “she” pronouns.  

2. Teaching

  • Set clear expectations from the start for rounding on patients, writing notes, inputting orders, presenting to the team, and establishing hours and workdays.
  • Ask the student what their goals are for the rotation.
  • Use objective standards and course objectives or AAMC guidelines for medical students.
  • Recall that each student is different in knowledge and training. Not everyone who rotates with you is an MS3 and not every MS3 has the same level of clinical knowledge.
  • Remember teaching can be as simple as thinking out loud as you make a medical decision or talking through the steps as you do a procedure.

3. Feedback

  • Give timely feedback when appropriate, often at the end of a week in a 4-week rotation.
  • Do so in a confidential and professional manner.
  • Ensure feedback is actionable.
  • Allow time for clarification and/or questions.

Communicating with Nurses

Communication between nurses and physicians is essential for the successful outcome of individualized care for each patient. To achieve this, nurses and physicians should understand and recognize that patient care is a shared duty. 

Physicians should remember these best practices when communicating with the nursing staff:

1. The Basics

  • Introduce yourself. Residents and nurses rotate all the time. Do not assume they know who you are and what team you’re from. 
  • Do not make assumptions about someone’s clinical role based on their appearance or gender. 
  • Show respect by thanking your nurses. People like to feel appreciated.
  • Acknowledge and apologize for mistakes such as a late discharge order or forgetting to sign a patient consent.

2. Keeping Them in the Loop

Nurses interact the most with your patients, which makes it absolutely critical to keep them in the loop. More specifically, you should:

  • Keep them posted on the plan. If the patient goes for a CT or MRI scan or has hemodialysis later in the afternoon, the nursing staff should know about it. 
  • This is a two-way street, often you may find yourself looking for the patient while they are gone for HD or imaging. Ask the nurses, as they will know your patient’s whereabouts. 
  • Respond promptly and appropriately if the nurse brings up a concern 
  • If you feel you are getting inappropriate pushback, avoid getting into an argument. Talk in-person and try to understand their point of view as well as the patient’s. 
  • Avoid disagreeing with or criticizing a nurse in front of a patient or your team. If you disagree, pull the nurse aside at a later time. Any feedback should be given privately. 

3. Improving Workflow

  • Choose the appropriate moment for nursing requests. For example, don’t interrupt the nurse to ask for routine blood work in the middle of her vitals check. If the issue is urgent, briefly explain the emergency and make your request. 
  • Again, be respectful and courteous. Say please and thank you!
  • Respect goes both ways. Avoid frustrating pages by letting your nurses know if you anticipate being unavailable for a period of time—for example, if you have a planned procedure or meeting with a patient’s family. 
  • Pay attention to the way your orders are written. Pages that may seem unnecessary and irritating can often be avoided by adding specific parameters to your orders. 

Communicating with Pharmacists 

Pharmacists are an excellent resource for any information regarding medications, such as:

  • They know the ins and outs of medications, including dosages, contraindications, adverse reactions or interactions.
  • They can help catch and prevent dangerous medication errors.

When interacting with them, be sure to use the previous best practices we shared—such as not making assumptions, showing respect, and responding promptly. Though you probably won’t be in contact with pharmacists as much as other team members, expect to hear from them and reach out with any questions. 

Communicating with Social Workers and Case Managers 

These workers are often understaffed and cover multiple teams at a time, making for a tough job. Be mindful to:

  • Appreciate what they do and reach out for collateral, discharges, or insurance assistance on your patients.    
  • Remain calm and cordial when delayed discharges occur. These situations can be a huge source of frustration, but delays are often beyond their control.

Conclusion & Additional Resources

On top of the aforementioned strategies, be aware of your nonverbal communication—namely eye contact, body positioning, and hand and facial expressions. These actions can speak volumes when it comes to conveying your level of concern regarding, interest in, and understanding of what the other person is saying. 

Most importantly, remember that everyone on the medical team has a common goal: to offer excellent patient care and efficient discharge that leads to outstanding patient outcomes. As long as you remain attentive and respectful, you should be able to work together towards this shared cause. 

If you’d like to continue sharpening your interpersonal skills, then dive into these other articles from the Rosh Review Blog

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By Mike Ren, MD

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