5 Steps to Effective Listening as a Physician

Great physicians know how to diagnose medical conditions, and labs and tests aren’t the only tools they rely upon to do so. Physicians can gather a ton of information about a patient just by listening to what the patient has to say.


But listening well isn’t always an easy thing to do.  


From primary care physicians to highly specialized surgeons, knowing how to listen to a patient is key to having a successful outcome. Here are five steps to effective listening that physicians can employ to make better diagnoses in both preliminary visits and follow-up exams.


1. Eliminate Distractions

Without a quiet environment, listening effectively can be nearly impossible.


Whether in person or in virtual appointments, physicians must see patients in a quiet room that’s free of distractions.


To listen attentively, physicians should make sure that ringing phones, chatty office staff, and outside traffic cannot be heard in the exam room.


2. Don’t Interrupt

Some patients are tight-lipped and don’t want to disclose too much information. Others, if you let them, will go on for hours about all of their symptoms and ailments.


As a physician, it’s important to let each patient tell their story and express their concerns. For example, some patients may be extra chatty because they’re feeling nervous or suffering from anxiety. How much or how little they talk can be signs of what they’re underlying condition may be.


No matter how tight your schedule may be, it is important to let a patient finish what they’re saying before you respond to them or ask your next question.


3. Listen with Your Ears and Your Eyes


We listen with our ears, yet experts say that more than 70% of all communication is nonverbal.


In addition to listening with your ears, learn to listen with your eyes by understanding body language. How frequently a person blinks, where they gaze their eyes, and how they gesture with their hands can give you great insight into what they’re really saying and thinking.


There are telltale body language signs that can also indicate lying. Knowing how to spot these can help you determine if your patient is being completely truthful about their health or if they’re over-embellishing their symptoms or leaving something out.


4. Be Mindful of Inflections in Speech


Like body language, the tone of someone’s voice helps us figure out what a person is saying.


Understanding the tone of someone’s voice and the inflections in a person’s speech can take time, but if you pick up on a tone or inflection that doesn’t sound “normal” it may be because the patient is exhibiting signs of a physical symptom or a form of anxiety or depression.


It’s also important to note that a person’s voice pitch tends to get higher when they’re lying, so listen for this audio clue as well. 


5. Ask Follow-up Questions


There’s more to effective listening than simply hearing what a patient has to say. It’s also about picking up on what they haven’t said.


Follow-up questions are the best way to get the answers you need that you haven’t already been told.


At the end of your patient exam, review your notes and ask a few follow-up questions to ensure that you have all the information you need to make a proper diagnosis, order additional testing, or prescribe the proper medications.


Patients don’t always know what signs or symptoms to be concerned about. It’s up to the physician to elicit those answers by asking all of the necessary questions.


Effective Listening Benefits Both You and Your Patients


From seeing patients to interviewing for a new job opportunity, effective listening skills are beneficial to all areas of your career as well as your personal life.


The next time you hire a staff member, interview for a new job, or negotiate an employment contract with a potential employer, effective listening can make a huge difference in the end result. Without them you could hire the wrong person, accept a position that’s not quite right for you, or agree to accept a lower salary than you deserve.


Check out this article to learn how a physician contract lawyer can help you negotiate a better contract with a bigger salary and more benefits.


In Conclusion

Despite all of the years spent in medical school and residency, most physicians develop their effective listening skills on the job.


Every patient interaction provides you with another opportunity to not only become a better physician but to become a better listener. Use these patient interactions to learn this must-have skill and you can establish better relationships with patients, make more accurate diagnoses, and become a top-quality physician in your field. 

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