Demand that Doctors Learn to Listen to Patients


Target: American Medical Association President Ardis Dee Hoven, MD

Goal: Increase patient visit time with physicians

Kaiser Health News recently reported that short doctor visits, often limited to only fifteen to twenty minutes, are taking a toll on relationships between patients and doctors. Moreover, short visits may limit the effectiveness of treatment, including increased prescribing of medication and less reliance on behavioral remedies, like changing diet and exercise change.

Long wait times to see doctors and long lists of patients to see per day certainly pose problems, but another issue may be that doctors don’t engage in effective communication when they do see patients. For instance, doctors interrupting patients is a key concern. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that in a study of 29 family physicians, patients received only 23.1 seconds, on average, to voice their medical concerns before being interrupted by the physician.

An article published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 1999 stresses the importance of improving physicians’ communication abilities. They point to several concrete ways that doctors can engage in patient-centered communication in order to increase the quality of visits. For instance, at the onset of a visit, patients might list an agenda so that the physician has prior knowledge of items to be discussed. Importantly, the group also encouraged physicians to use empathic statements to show understanding and to encourage the patient to suggest what she or he thinks might be going on.

A recent article published in the journal Medical Decision Making used statistical models to investigate factors that predicted total length of patient-doctor visits. The authors suggest that the quality of visits could be improved if patients’ needs and backgrounds were made available to physicians ahead of time and they encourage individual offices to build similar statistical models to better account for their particular needs.

Join us in affirming that Americans deserve more from their physicians, and that physicians deserve to give more to their patients. Encourage the American Medical Association to spend more time training future physicians to communicate effectively with their patients.


Dear Dr. Hoven,

Patients frequently leave the doctor’s office feeling frustrated, having spent few minutes with physicians whom they have often been waiting to see for months. While time is always a precious commodity, there are many steps that can be taken to improve the quality of visits with physicians.

I write to ask that you encourage medical care providers to change the current conception of medical visits. Doctors must ensure that their attention is focused on the patient and that they are listening to the patient’s concerns. Frequent interrupting not only means that doctors don’t hear all that patients have to say, but it also means that patients feel marginalized and frustrated that their concerns are not being attended to.

Furthermore, if patients are seen by multiple providers within a single visit (such as a nurse practitioner followed by a physician), patients not only lose time spent with the physician, but they may also lose time in having to repeat their concerns. It is therefore paramount that communication be effective within the staff of the doctor’s office, as well as between patient and physician.

I urge you to use your influence to work with medical schools and other medical education programs to teach doctors how to listen to patients and how to effectively communicate within the doctor’s office.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: Rhoda Baer via Wikimedia Commons

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