Impact Insights

Doctor, Doctor! On Effectively Communicating with Physicians Part I

If you are new to healthcare you may be perplexed about how to communicate with physicians.  Even seasoned pros sometimes struggle. Though physician personalities and communication styles run the gamut, there are some general “rules” that can help you successfully navigate conversations with physicians.

Please Understand Me

First, it helps a lot to understand a bit more about physicians.  The number one reason students say they want to go to medical school is “to help people.”  Wide-eyed young medical students eager to learn as much as they can and help as many as they can then spend a grinding decade of 80 hour plus work-weeks, sleep deprivation, often demeaning and condescending teachers and miniscule pay all to finish with a mountain of debt, high expectations for producing both volume and value in patient care and lawyers waiting on the sidelines ready to pounce at the first mistake.

A normal day at the job is hard for doctors.  Often it includes running nonstop for eight to 12 hours, being constantly interrupted, having patients demanding attention and empathy, being saturated with data and needing to make rapid decisions without adequate information; and knowing that the human, professional and financial consequences of an error could be disastrous.  It’s a pressure cooker.  The demands and responsibility can be very hard to handle.  Burnout is rampant among physicians. Doctors have high rates of divorce, substance abuse and have the highest suicide rate of any profession.

Thankfully, training programs are changing and there has been a lot of attention on work-life balance and avoiding burnout in the past few years.  The reality is however, that healthcare may be more stressful for doctors now than ever before.  As reimbursement models stand ready to change from volume-based to value-based, physicians must completely change the focus of their business.  In this interim time period of transitioning from one system to the next, doctors must stand with “one foot on the dock and one foot on the canoe,” basically practicing volume and value in order to survive.

Is it any wonder then that as you navigate the healthcare landscape you may come across doctors that are brusque and won’t give you the time of day?  They may even be arrogant and egotistical, or worse.

If you have to talk to doctors it helps to understand that in general, physicians:

  • Value autonomy, especially clinical autonomy
  • Prefer data-based arguments and learning
  • Make quick, fact-based decisions
  • Focus on the best interests of the patient and his or her family
  • Seek both intrinsic rewards, like providing high quality care, and extrinsic rewards, like earning more money
  • Struggle with the optimal way to provide resource efficient and effective, high quality health care.

Generational Differences

There are also some generational differences in physicians that are handy to know.  For instance:

Boomers (born 1946-1964)

  • Generally have only moderate comfort with information technology
  • Are looking for ways to leave a legacy and to know that their lives have been meaningful and their knowledge an asset to the organization
  • May put jobs before family
  • Most comfortable with hierarchical decision-making and “paying your dues”

Gen Xers (born 1963-1980)

  • Very comfortable with information technology
  • Determined to prioritize both job and family
  • Value team-work, collaboration, non-hierarchical decision-making, in a relaxed, comfortable environment
  • Bring a questioning attitude to everything they do

Millennials (born 1980-2000)

  • Extremely comfortable with information technology
  • Seek to immediately contribute to an organization and do not want to wait for years to be heard
  • Feedback and team-oriented
  • Value fewer hours at work more than moving up the company ladder and receiving increases in pay

**Stay tuned for more from Dr. Tonya Edwards and for physician related consulting services, reach her at**