Medical Miscommunication

Medical miscommunication is a very real problem in healthcare today. Miscommunication is essentially the failure to convey relevant medical information to key players in the medical team; resulting in minor errors or even malpractice. Ineffective communication may occur between patient and doctor or between physicians and experts.

In large hospital systems, medical notes are supposed to be transferred internally from department to department. But this often reaches the healthcare professional only after they have seen the patient. The transfer of medical records between two different hospital systems is almost non-existent, unless patients proactively demand it. Even then, there are numerous delays — a potentially dangerous and frustrating situation for the patient.

The Passage of TimeWhy is this happening more and more nowadays? One reason is definitely a time issue for physicians. Nowadays, one doctor manages a very high caseload and volume; they also have to spend a lot of time on documentation. As a result, they hardly spend 5-10 minutes one-on-one time with a patient. Needless to say, the stage is set for communication errors. Another interesting reason is the super-specialization trend. As more and more specialized fields emerge, patients are sometimes referred to many, many, specialists before a diagnosis is made, or a solution is presented. As a result, the team of professionals is constantly expanding. It is definitely more challenging to maintain very thorough communication inside a large team than a smaller one.

Miscommunication also occurs because one patient may be seeing too many different doctors — a form of doctor shopping. The patient is just trying to get the best possible opinion but, during that time, one doctor is unaware that another doctor is even treating the patient. I have heard of cases where the Primary care physicians sometimes do not even know that their patients are being treated by specialists for stroke or heart disease!

The effects of miscommunication may be minor such as a need for rescheduling an appointment, or a patient being prepped for surgery but the surgeon not being available at that time. On the other end of the spectrum, there could also be terrible results of miscommunication — over-medication, duplication of medication, duplication of services which increases healthcare costs, and surgeries on wrong areas of the body. Drug interactions are another big potential disaster; when patients do not communicate to the doctor what medications they are taking.

This is a scary and potentially life threatening situation, that may be avoided. When seeing a healthcare professional, we have a right to have all our questions answered, and we also have a responsibility to provide our medical history accurately and keep all our doctors on the same page by doing our part in communicating effectively with them. After all, we are the common link between all the medical professionals who treat us.

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS, is a physical therapist by profession, and has over 7 years of clinical experience in the field of neurological rehabilitation. She has treated individuals with stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and amputations. She has also completed training modules and community education projects in Michigan and North Carolina.
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