The Winds of Change

With the trust levels between clinicians in private practice and their patients plummeting to what many would call an all-time low, many clinicians have been wondering what they need to do to regain the lost trust.

In a recent interaction with some senior clinicians, I found that many are reflecting deeply on things that they perhaps need to do differently and maybe unlearn some of what they learned early on in their careers. The new skills they felt they needed to acquire lie not in the domain of medicine but in the areas of patient communication, documentation and even bed-side manners.

The clinicians are increasingly realizing that treating patients and saving lives is much more than just wielding the knife or taking life and death decisions based on their clinical acumen and skills. The clinicians feel that they need to engage with their patients in multiple ways to earn the patient’s trust once again.

The good news is that they are more than willing to do so.

The new age clinicians are learning lessons in patient communication (pun intended) as they deal with Google strengthened patients, who have dozens of questions on their differential diagnosis, tests needed, treatment plans and even backup plans if things go wrong.  The patients are asking questions on drug reactions, likely side-effects and how would one cope with them if God forbid, they occur. They want to know why a particular implant is being recommended, what are the chances of an allergic reaction from the metal used in the implant and what can be done about it!!! From the clinician’s point of view, this is many worlds’ away from the time when they were treated like demigods and their pronouncements considered to be almost divine.

The clinicians are getting used to the new reality and many are keen to be trained in being able to address these questions adequately and in a manner that the patients understand. The clinicians are trying hard to learn the language of their patients. Many do not shy away from passing on patient literature developed by hospitals, especially for this purpose. Many are equipped with videos of past patients, which they happily handout to their new patients. Some, direct the patients to check out authoritative resources on the web and satisfy their thirst for knowledge. Clinicians are writing blogs and creating web content for patients to read and understand their conditions better before they decide on surgery.

In India, very few clinicians are as digital media savvy as say their colleagues in management. I reckon this is primarily because many senior clinicians are still from a generation when they never had social media when they were growing up or training in medical schools. They became professionally busy well before the advent of the smartphone and the 24×7 assault of the Facebooks, the Linked-Ins, and Twitters of the world. Thus, they hardly had time to get used to the tremendous power these digital tools wield in engaging with consumers today.  This too is now changing. Many clinicians are now harnessing the power of these social media platforms to engage with their patients. That the mediums allow for a continuous engagement, which is way beyond the episodic nature of a surgery or hospitalization is an added advantage. Many clinicians in a sincere effort to shed the old world aura of being  Gods are also sharing snippets of their personal lives, hobbies, family pictures and vacations to connect better with their patients.

The doctors are also trying to be nicer to their patients and are even considering sartorial changes to make them look smarter and more approachable. It is now quite usual to see smartly attired,  doctors welcoming patients in their OPD chambers. Some are even spending time in the gym, making them look fitter and healthier. They are certainly willing to spend more time with the patients and their attendants. The clinicians are also realizing that patients admitted to the hospital under their care look forward to seeing and hearing from them at least once a day. Many now hold conversations with their patients on their medical rounds, which are far more reassuring than in the past. Some clinicians are also sharing their phone numbers so that patients can WhatsApp if they need to reach out for anything.

These are all welcome developments.

However, the biggest change, which appears to be happening is in the area of documentation. Unfortunately, medical education and training in India, which is still largely in government-run institutions does not equip doctors with the meticulous documentation needed, while working in large corporate hospitals. The clinicians need to learn to work on HIS systems of various degrees of complexity, put in orders in the system, prescription have to be recorded in electronic formats and the smallest of thing needs to be properly documented. The days of the clinician’s iconic scrawl are well and truly over. Verbal orders barked to nurses no longer suffice. The culture of documentation and the use of technology allows for significant reduction in medication and other errors. It leads to far greater patient safety and protects everyone from doctors to nurses to hospitals from disputes and legal action.

These are welcome changes. That the clinicians are thinking about ushering in these changes to help reach out to their patients better is indeed reassuring. I am sure these will go a long way in bridging the gulf that now divides patients and their doctors.

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