Navigating Tough Conversations with Empathy

Premier Pulse     March 2022

1326106436By Percy Mitchell, MD, medical staff president, Atrium Medical Center

As it finally appears that this COVID-19 pandemic will transition to being endemic, the challenges for us physicians continue. Now, more than ever, we must maintain the energy necessary to have empathy for our patients, for our colleagues, and for each other.

With more face-to-face interactions with others and more physician-led team interactions regarding consultations within our areas of expertise, there will inevitably be challenges to our professional opinions. We are, hopefully, escaping from an era in which about 1 million people in our country died from the same illness. Additionally, a significant number of people who never attended medical school have strong opinions about that illness, as well as thoughts about its management.        

As leaders within the hospital, one of our jobs is to create a safe space while attending to patient care under our directions. When we are surrounded by people who are challenging, whose nerves are frayed, who are fatigued, it is important to make a mental note of that before proceeding with our chosen response to a situation. Being decisive with a civil tone is more effective than taking an angry, defensive posture.

It is not unlikely that we will continue to come across patients who feel entitled to selectively challenge the data-driven scientific methodical approaches we learned as we became experts in our respective fields. As such, we do not have to respond as if we, as individuals, are the only ones ever to have been challenged.

Some physicians feel entitled to approach these patient interactions as they wish. However, if that approach benefits their own personal interests, it is unethical and potentially illegal.

Direct communication is the best approach if we have concerns with one of our colleagues. If concerns are not resolved, the Ohio State Medical Board has established Rule 4731-15-01, otherwise known as our duty to report directly to the board. A thorough investigation of each complaint has resulted in 4 percent of complaints ending in disciplinary action. Failure to report known misconduct can result in revocation of our medical license and up to a $20,000 fine.

As alluded to above, empathy is energy-expending; but a well-delivered civil discussion at the onset can go a long way in avoiding uncomfortable outcomes. We thank you for your continued leadership in these most difficult of conversations. 

Back to the March 2022 issue of Premier Pulse