Research shows that many doctors need to work on communicating with their patients

The medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine recently published an interesting article entitled “Shared Understanding With Patients.”

As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, the title of this article captured my attention. Time after time, I meet with new clients who have been seriously injured from poor medical care who say something like, “If the doctor (or nurse) would have just listened, this never would have happened.”

Poor communication during treatment

To have real communication, one person has to say something that is heard and understood by the other person. Sometimes words can be uttered, but the other person is zoned out or they just do not register.

A lack of good communication frequently happens when doctors and nurses seemingly ignore patient and family member complaints about new symptoms that are indications that the patient’s health is deteriorating.

This was exactly the situation in a wrongful death case that I handled a few years ago. A delightful elderly lady slipped and fell at church and had to have back surgery. Either her devoted husband or one of her adult children was with her constantly at the hospital. A few nights after the surgery, her son told the nurses that the patient was acting strangely. The nurses discounted this information and did not call for a doctor. When someone acts out of character, it can be a sign of a change in neurologic status, which is often one of the earliest signs that something is wrong.

Over the course of the night, the patient began squirming uncomfortably and then writhing in pain, to the point that he son had to hold her down so she would not fall out of the bed. By the time the nurses finally called the doctor, it was too late. The autopsy showed that she had been significantly overdosed on pain medications, which eventually took her life.

In this type of situation, it is appropriate to be assertive. While health care providers are trained professionals, a patient and his or her family will almost always be able to tell when there is a significant change from the patient’s norm, or baseline. If the nurse or doctor is not taking your information and complaints seriously, ask to speak to a nurse supervisor or another physician until you find someone who will listen to your concerns and apply their training to address the health care needs.

Poor communication about treatment options

Research shows that around 90% of patients want their doctors to tell them about all choices available to them in health care. Only a fraction of those patients were given the opportunity to discuss those options with their doctors.

The JAMA Internal Medicine article referenced a concept called the “science of kindness.” This starts with doctors acknowledging that patients have limited knowledge about health care issues, and working to provide information that will help make decision making a shared effort between physicians and patients. Doctors can encourage this kind of dialogue by encouraging patients to learn more about health care. The writers encourage doctors to show a willingness to partner with patients and increase the number of decisions based on true share understanding.

Both in personal experiences, as well as in my career as a medical malpractice lawyer, I have seen doctors who are good at patient communication, and others who were simply terrible. An increasing number of experts in the medical community are realizing something that I have seen for years in medical malpractice cases.

Even doctors who have excellent training and technical expertise can make grave medical errors if they will not listen to, or have good communications, with their patients. This can be a dangerous situation where doctors are making treatment decisions on their own without all of the relevant information.

I have found that there are two key signs that there may be a problem with the doctor’s communication skills that could put patient safety at risk. One sign is the doctor seems like he or she is in a race to get out of the room and shows impatience in talking to you or asking any question. The second sign is that the doctor spends almost all of the time looking at a computer screen and typing information, rather than looking at, examining, or talking to the patient.

If you find yourself in that experience, I suggest that you prepare your questions—even write them down—before seeing the doctor. That way, you can respect his or her time, but also ensure that you remember what you need answered. If the doctor is rude or impatient with your polite quest for more information, then it may be time to look for a new physician.

We are here to help

If you or someone you care for has been seriously injured as a result of the mistake or negligence of a doctor, nurse, hospital, or surgeon call Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, at 281-580-8800, for a few evaluation by an experienced medical malpractice lawyer about your potential case.


Attorney Robert Painter files lawsuits on behalf of victims of medical negligence. He is a member of Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas, where he devotes his practice to medical malpractice and wrongful death matters involving doctors, nurses, hospitals, and pharmacies.

Robert Painter
Article by

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.