How patient-clinician communication can promote minimally disruptive medicine via shared decision-making

by Zackary Berger, MD, PhD

How can we get more clinicians to help the patient receive minimally disruptive medicine? The answer might lie in the improvement of patient-clinician communication. For many conditions, the doctor is encouraged to look into the book – or, more likely, UpToDate – and read out the recommendations of the latest guideline.

But there are two limitations to guidelines. The first, of course, is that all guidelines, whether from the United States Preventive Services Task Force or the International Association of Quackery, are only as good as the methodology and evidence that go into them. The second is that even the best guideline is not a magic recipe for appropriate care for the individual person in question.

If you are discussing screening for prostate cancer via the PSA test, whether you are a patient or provider, you will surely realize that the guidelines of the urologists and internists are now in rare agreement: universal screening is not recommended. What is now recommended is shared decision making, a series of tasks that patients and clinicians do together to communicate about the options and to deliberate to identify the one that fits best with the patient preference and context.

Whether it’s prostate cancer, diabetes, or depression, how can we bridge the gap from guidelines to individually sensitive care? I think there are two steps. The first, as I outline in my book, is to build a relationship between PCP and patient that can handle the intellectual and emotional stresses of decision making with unclear information. This requires mindfulness; emotional readiness; and specificity and clarity of options.

The second step is to contextualize clinical recommendations in a way that only good communication makes possible. Such contextualization is now being addressed by some fascinating new research. We have already known, through the work of communication researchers (chief among them Debra Roter), how to characterize a true dialogue between patient and clinician.

Unfortunately, the evidence is mixed as to the extent to which such dialogue leads to improved outcomes. In their recent work, Saul Weiner and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and at Duke University, try to determine how often physicians take the next step after good communication: using an appreciation for the patient’s individual concerns and customizing their recommendation on that basis. It’s not enough to empathize, in other words, about someone’s job loss, poverty, broken family, or inability to navigate our health system: the doctor’s care must respond to those individualities. They find that physicians who manage that customization offer care which is more appropriate to an individual’s given situation (here is a video that demonstrates “red flags” about contextual issues designed to prompt clinician response, which rarely took place).

We know that maximally invasive care is often a shortcut taken by physicians (and patients) overwhelmed by the complexities of possible options, and daunted by the challenge of modifying medicine to a person’s unique needs. Contextualizing care through good communication can give us permission to be minimally invasive when appropriate, hopefully for the benefit of person and system alike.

Zackary Berger, MD, PhD, is an internist and researcher in doctor-patient communication at Johns Hopkins General Internal Medicine in Baltimore. He is particularly interested in the role of the primary care provider in cancer control. His book, Talking To Your Doctor, is out on July 16th, 2013.