Emotional Intelligence – Understanding Patient, Staff, and Physician Needs

By Dr. Alan Rosenstein  /  23 Sep 2014

Each day physicians communicate with other clinicians, hospital staff, numerous patients and their families. Most of these communications are critical. (“How are you feeling?” “We need to take you into surgery.” “Your father is going to be drowsy from the medication, “Could you tell me how my patient is doing today?”) Having a better understand of other’s values, needs, and concerns, and learning how to adjust and manage your emotions accordingly will increase the success of the health care interaction. Physicians must possess this “emotional intelligence” to be able to understand the pressures, stresses and concerns of their patients and colleagues, responding in a way that results in better communication and collaboration, more positive relationships, and ultimately, better patient outcomes. But a recent survey of U.S. hospitals found between 40-60% of physician staff are ineffective communicators.

This isn’t just a minor issue for healthcare organizations. In fact some research suggests that when patients are more satisfied with the communication of their physicians, they feel better about the care they received, and they are less likely to complain or file a malpractice suit – which could mean huge financial savings, not to mention a potential jump in patient satisfaction scores. Healthcare leadership should therefore make it a priority to evaluate interactions between hospital staff, physicians and nurses, and physicians and patients to gauge the effectiveness of that communication and the overall happiness of each constituent with how that communication was delivered. These insights can help them develop strategies for teaching emotional intelligence and addressing poor communication skills across the organization.

It’s also important to understand that everyone communicates differently. Sure, ideally all physicians and healthcare staff are fully engaged and positive, but in a complex world where there are added demands and fewer resources, it can be difficult to maintain a high level of engagement all of the time. Here are five physician communication categories and the types of behaviors associated with each:

  • Fully engaged – Physicians are at ease, collaborative, and can anticipate a patient’s wants and needs and take an active role in participating or leading the overall care management process.
  • Engaged – Physicians are participating in the conversation, but may be distracted or missing behavioral cues.
  • Non-compliant – Physicians are not listening to staff or patient concerns and don’t take patients’ needs into account.
  • Passive aggressive – Physicians overlook what the patient is saying, and present themselves in a combative manner. Tone is a major factor here.
  • Disruptive/destructive – The most rare and undesirable is a physician with a disruptive or destructive attitude.

Healthcare leaders need to be able to recognize these types of behaviors and establish strategies for intervening to improve physician engagement. For example, for many of us, a strenuous workload can make us more distracted, stressed, less engaged, and in some cases lead to burnout. That same holds true for many physicians as well. It would therefore be beneficial to identify when physicians are especially busy and work to create a culture where physicians feel comfortable voicing when they’re feeling overloaded and need to shift things around.

As an industry, we need to make sure to focus on emotional intelligence from the very beginning: medical school. Medical students learn the ins and outs of how to treat illnesses, but many schools lack a focus on empathy training. Students and interns need to be coached to cultivate an emotional intelligence early on, and develop good practices for communicating with patients.

With these factors in mind, emotional intelligence can help improve care relationships and overall satisfaction of both the physician and staff and patient alike.


2 thoughts on “Emotional Intelligence – Understanding Patient, Staff, and Physician Needs

  1. Renee

    Great article. I was wondering if you knew of any type of workshops that physicians and staff could attend to better communicate and understand each other.

    1. PerfectServe Post author

      There are great workshops across the country that offer opportunities for physician groups. We encourage you to look into what the AAPL, AMGA and MGMA have to offer. Many of the GPOs/healthcare alliances and other consultancies like The Advisory Board offer sessions as well.


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