It's no surprise, really, that doctors and patients don't communicate well.
But a new national poll exposes the depth of the problem and its causes. Physicians' lack of time with patients and patients' reluctance to discuss embarrassing problems are primary obstacles, according to interviews conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, a national polling firm.
By understanding barriers to effective give-and-take in the doctor's office, a newly formed coalition of healthcare provider groups intends to begin the formidable task of mending the communication gap.
"This silence between patients and healthcare providers can and does have serious consequences for our health," said former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D. Koop chairs the Take Time to Talk Advisory Council, which released results of the poll in New York last week. Council members include representatives of the American Medical Group Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Association of Health Plans.
Koop said he believes patient-physician communication has worsened in recent years, blaming "the necessary modus operandi of managed care" for constraining providers' time with patients. He said healthcare administrators can help ease the predicament by encouraging physicians to use time more efficiently.
For example, he said a managed-care director might suggest a list of questions that doctors should pose during a patient visit.
Of the 230 primary-care physicians surveyed, 93% agreed that serious medical problems could be averted if patients were more willing to talk about their problems. Sixty-seven percent said lack of time to spend with patients is a very serious or somewhat serious problem.
And 61% agreed they were not well prepared in medical school or their residencies for communicating with patients.
Twenty-six percent of the 1,008 adults surveyed acknowledged there had been times when they were reluctant to talk to a doctor about a health problem.
The Louis Harris poll represents the first leg of the advisory council's campaign to improve patient-physician communication. The group also has published a brochure filled with communication tips.
In addition, a series of public service announcements sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians and underwritten by Pharmacia & Upjohn will begin airing on radio and television in January. Future activities include a pilot study to monitor improvements in communication and development of a subcommittee to help explore new ways to foster patient-provider discourse.