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When the Family Wants to Speak to the Doctor

Being a doctor is often more about talking to people and communicating than it is about the strictly scientific practice of medicine. But communication skills are unfortunately not taught enough in medical school, as newly qualified doctors often realize very quickly as they start their careers.

Throughout the busy and hectic day of any hospital-based physician — no matter what their specialty — one of the most common requests we hear from nurses is whether patients’ family members can also speak with us.

These requests will always be attempted to be met with duty of service, that it comes with the territory as part of the job. Occasionally, however (and this is the absolute minority), I’ve encountered physicians who shrug their shoulders and wonder, “What does the family want?,” or “I spent so much time talking with the patient, why does the family also need to speak with me now?”

Some of these feelings can be legitimate, especially if the doctor feels rushed and under pressure to move on to the next patient. But it makes me shudder anytime I see a doctor who doesn’t feel it their duty to talk with their patient’s family.

Suppose time is tight, as it invariably always is in a hospital environment. In that case, certain techniques can help, such as making sure you establish one main point of contact in the family (who can then update other family members) and scheduling a particular time of day for the family to be present in the room at the same time you are going to see the patient.

Another thing I always do, especially with elderly patients, is call the family when I’m in the patient’s room, giving my updates and instructions on speakerphone, so everyone can hear what I say at the same time and ask any questions.

Here’s a simple thought experiment to underscore the importance of always speaking to the family: Imagine just for a moment that the person you love most in the world is lying in a hospital bed, sick and unwell, vulnerable, and at a low point in their life. Imagine that this person (and you) have very little medical knowledge or any understanding of the internal workings of a hospital, let alone the human body.

Imagine that this loved one has had their happy daily life unexpectedly turned upside down by illness. Imagine feeling their anxiety, concern, and stress. Imagine that the future they and you had and took for granted is now up in the air. Imagine how sad and worried you feel entering the hospital, with so many questions that need answering.

Who can help you understand what’s wrong and what the plan is? Who can help ease your fears and calm you? Who has the authority to reassure you?

That person is you, doctor. It’s not the nurse, case manager, or anyone else. It is the part of your day that will be most remembered and appreciated by that anxious person who just wants a few minutes of your time.

Not the busy work, the paperwork, the ticking boxes on the computer. But your words of explanation and hope. In nearly all cases, your presence and going back into your patient’s room will be met with relief and sincere gratitude.

You may be tired, exhausted, or hungry — to the point that every patient may seem like just another name on your list of things to do.

But that name is a person, a human being who has a loving, caring, and concerned family.

Therefore, whenever you hear the words, “Doctor, the patient’s family wants to speak with you for an update,” see it as your ultimate calling to go and talk with them.

Of all the things you do during your day, this may make the most difference.

Suneel Dhand, MD, is an internal medicine physician, author, and co-founder of DocsDox. He can be reached at his self-titled site,, and on YouTube.

This post appeared on KevinMD.

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