Lown Right Care

Reducing Overuse and Underuse

Poor Physician-Patient Communication and Medical Error


Am Fam Physician. 2021 Jun 15;103(12):757-759.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Case Scenario

A 48-year-old patient presented with a history of major depressive disorder and mildly elevated blood pressure. After two separate blood pressure measurements of 155/90 mm Hg, the patient's physician prescribed daily hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) to lower blood pressure. The patient asked if there was anything important to know about the medication, and the physician said the patient should eat a banana daily to keep potassium levels up. The patient was advised to follow up in the future. The physician did not ask about any other medications the patient was taking or other health habits, and additional blood tests were not ordered.

The patient was taking escitalopram (Lexapro), which a psychiatrist prescribed, was an avid runner, and often fasted one day per week for health reasons. The patient took the HCTZ as prescribed and, over the next few weeks, began to feel weak and dizzy. The patient called his physician, who diagnosed acute labyrinthitis over the phone and prescribed meclizine for vertigo. The patient's symptoms worsened despite the new medication, and the patient passed out during a run one week later, on a day of fasting. At the emergency department, the patient's blood pressure was 75/50 mm Hg, potassium was 2.3 mEq per L (2.30 mmol per L), and sodium was 117 mEq per L (117.00 mmol per L). The patient was admitted to the hospital, and the HCTZ was immediately discontinued.

Clinical Commentary

Good communication between physicians and patients is essential to enable good outcomes and avoid medical errors. Sometimes patients cannot express their concerns and needs clearly. Conversely, physicians often overestimate their communication skills, and such skills have been shown to decline during a physician's career.1 Breakdown in communication can lead to harm and suboptimal treatment. A previous article in American Family Physician highlighted the importance of involving the patient as a partner in the diagnostic process,2 something that can only occur with good physician-patient discourse.

Poor communication can lead to a medical error when a patient does not report their allergies or health history to a physician, or when a physician does not correctly or thoroughly record a medical history or medication list, as in this patient's case. When clinicians do not communicate well with each other, errors can occur because of incorrect or missing information.3 But harm may also occur when patients do not follow a prescribed course of care or physicians do not inform patients of potential risks of treatment.

Studies have shown that ineffective clinician communication can reduce patient adherence to care. One study found that when patients believed communication was optimal, 70% followed recommendations, whereas when communication was deemed poor quality, only 50% did. Patients with lower adherence had worse outcomes and a substantially higher cost of care.4 In 71% of cases in which patients did not follow a physician's care plan, they did not agree with what the physician recommended, or they did not fully understand the physician's instructions. This can occur when a physician does not explain the recommendations adequately and does not allow patients to ask questions or voice their beliefs or concerns.5 When patients are allowed to tell their story and physicians explain information in a way that patients understand, adherence and quality of care improve without increasing the patient visit time.6 Good communication has been associated with higher patient satisfaction, increased adherence to therapy, better control of blood glucose and blood pressure, fewer medical mistakes, and increased symptom

Address correspondence to Andy Lazris, MD, CMD, at alazris50@gmail.com. Reprints are not available from the authors.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.


show all references

1. Ha JF, Longnecker N. Doctor-patient communication: a review. Ochsner J. 2010;10(1):38–43....

2. Ely JW, Graber ML. Preventing diagnostic errors in primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(6):426–432. Accessed April 1, 2021. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2016/0915/p426.html

3. Dingley C, Daugherty K, Derieg MK, et al. Improving patient safety through provider communication strategy enhancements. In: Henriksen K, ed. Advances in Patient Safety: New Directions and Alternative Approaches. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 2008.

4. Okunrintemi V, Spatz ES, Di Capua P, et al. Patient-provider communication and health outcomes among individuals with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in the United States: medical expenditure panel survey 2010 to 2013 [published correction appears in Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2017;10(8):e000031]. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2017;10(4):e003635.

5. Institute for Healthcare Communication. Impact of communication in healthcare. July 201 1. Accessed August 1, 2020. https://healthcarecomm.org/about-us/impact-of-communication-in-healthcare/

6. Riedl D, Schüßler G. The influence of doctor-patient communication on health outcomes: a systemic review. Z Psychosom Med Psychother. 2017;63(2):131–150.

7. Travaline JM, Ruchinskas R, D'Alonzo JE Jr. Patient-physician communication: why and how. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2005;105(1):13–18.

8. Greville-Harris M, Dieppe P. Bad is more powerful than good: the nocebo response in medical consultations. Am J Med. 2015;128(2):126–129.

Lown Institute Right Care Alliance is a grassroots coalition of clinicians, patients, and community members organizing to make health care institutions accountable to communities and to put patients, not profits, at the heart of health care.

This series is coordinated by Kenny Lin, MD, MPH, deputy editor.

A collection of Lown Right Care published in AFP is available at https://www.aafp.org/afp/rightcare.



Copyright © 2021 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions

CME Quiz

More in AFP

More in Pubmed


Jan 2022

Access the latest issue of American Family Physician

Read the Issue

Email Alerts

Don't miss a single issue. Sign up for the free AFP email table of contents.

Sign Up Now

Navigate this Article