A Compassionate Communication Refresher for Clinicians Experiencing COVID Fatigue

 

If the stress of the pandemic has challenged your patient communication skills, here's how you can reestablish rapport.

Fam Pract Manag. 2021 Jul-Aug;28(4):30A-30E.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations.

Published online ahead of the July/August 2021 issue of FPM on June 21, 2021.

COVID-19 introduced several barriers to effective doctor-patient communication. Personal protective equipment (PPE) complicated our ability to read and understand one another's nonverbal cues, and often made verbal communication more difficult as well. Physical distancing and isolation removed the role of physical touch from patient visits and kept families apart during times of illness. And telehealth further complicated doctor-patient interactions. Each of these barriers were necessary to slow the spread of disease, but they contributed to fatigue, poor attitudes, and poor communication.

While our communities are beginning to open up, and our fear of getting the virus has lessened as more individuals have gotten vaccinated, we likely still face months of continued safety measures. For example, although many practices no longer require physicians to wear face shields, they do still require face masks.

As COVID-19 fatigue has grown, physicians and their staff members may have become lax in employing good communication strategies — such as “smiling with our eyes” behind the masks. We may not be trying as hard any more to make personal connections. Therefore, it is a good time to check in on how we are communicating with our patients and how we can reestablish rapport.

KEY POINTS

  • COVID-19 safety measures and COVID fatigue have made doctor-patient communication more difficult.

  • Effective verbal and nonverbal communication helps patients feel safe, which allows them to share more comfortably the physical and emotional aspects of their illness.

  • Even with face masks, physical distancing, and telehealth, physicians can take simple steps to improve their communication and deepen their connections with patients.

WHY COMPASSIONATE COMMUNICATION MATTERS

Research makes clear that compassionate caring as manifested in therapeutic communication techniques is essential for patient care and for our own well-being.1 Therapeutic communication techniques help the clinician establish effective, patient-centered interactions and have a wide variety of effects on patient care, such as improving patient adherence, lowering the chances of malpractice claims, increasing the number of favorable medical outcomes, increasing patient satisfaction, and improving efficiency. The more effectively a clinician communicates verbally and nonverbally, the more likely patients are to feel safe, which in turn allows them to share more comfortably the physical and emotional aspects of their illness. In response, the clinician can properly formulate a diagnosis and prepare a treatment plan that

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Dr. Zabukovic is a primary care physician with Primary Care Partners of South Bend in South Bend, Ind., and is an adjunct faculty member with the Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind.

Nicole Wisniewski is a premedical student at the University of Notre Dame and intern with the Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine.

Dr. Vachon is director of the Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations.

References

show all references

1. Vachon DO. How Doctors Care: The Science of Compassionate and Balanced Caring in Medicine. Cognella Academic Publishing; 2019....

2. Salmon P, Young B. Dependence and caring in clinical communication: the relevance of attachment and other theories. Patient Educ Couns. 2009;74(3):331–338.

3. Porges SW. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.

4. Wong CK, Yip BH, Mercer S, et al. Effect of facemasks on empathy and relational continuity: a randomised controlled trial in primary care. BMC Fam Pract. 2013;14:200.

5. Reidy J, Brown-Johnson C, McCool N, Steadman S, Heffernan MB, Nagpal V. Provider perceptions of a humanizing intervention for health care workers — a survey study of PPE portraits. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2020;60(5):e7–e10.

6. Berman AC, Chutka DS. Assessing effective physician-patient communication skills: “Are you listening to me, doc?” Korean J Med Educ. 2016;28(2):243–249.

7. Houchens N, Tipirneni R. Compassionate communication amid the COVID-19 pandemic. J Hosp Med. 2020;15(7):437–439.

8. Rosenzweig MQ. Breaking bad news: a guide for effective and empathetic communication. Nurse Pract. 2012;37(2):1–4.

9. Back A, Tulsky JA, Arnold RM. Communication skills in the age of COVID-19. Ann Intern Med. 2020;172(11):759–760.

10. Elkiss ML, Jerome JA. Touch — more than a basic science. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2012;112(8):514–517.

11. Nicol GE, Piccirillo JF, Mulsant BH, Lenze EJ. Action at a distance: geriatric research during a pandemic. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2020;68(5):922–925.

12. Luxton DD, Nelson EL, Maheu MM. A Practitioner's Guide to Telemental Health: How to Conduct Legal, Ethical, and Evidence-Based Telepractice. American Psychological Association; 2016.

13. Terry C, Cain J. The emerging issue of digital empathy. Am J Pharm Educ. 2016;80(4):58.

14. Kumar P, Huda F, Basu S. Telemedicine in the COVID-19 era: the new normal. Eur Surg. 2020 Oct 8:1–2.

15. Iyengar K, Jain VK, Vaishya R. Pitfalls in telemedicine consultation in the era of COVID 19 and how to avoid them. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2020;14(5):797–799.

 
 

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 fpmserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions

CME Quiz

FPM E-Newsletter

Sign up to receive FPM's free, weekly e-newsletter, "Quick Tips & Insights."

Sign Up Now