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Clinical Communication and History Taking – An Associate Clinical Educators Perspective

It’s always important for an ACE to understand the protocols health professionals must follow to help them take a good history from a patient. Once we understand this we are able to give hi-fidelity feedback to the Clinician and thus help them improve their ability to build rapport and gather information simultaneously.

Last week I had the pleasure of working with our partners at The University of Chester and The University of Wolverhampton Physician Associate Programmes.

At Chester University  we worked with 1st Year physician associates and at Wolverhampton we were working with 2nd year students. In both cases we were looking at how students communicate effectively with patients. What was apparent is the importance of quality feedback to the student.

For the students at Chester this was their first time looking at role-play, it was difficult convincing shy students to step up to the plate and hear their thoughts. It turns out that the ACE also has to be something of a motivator encouraging the students to take part. To get to grips with the scenario and to see that “roleplay” can be fun and educational, rather than scary and intimidating. It is this element of teaching that I particularly enjoy.

Wolverhampton however was very different, but still had its challenges. Although the students were more experienced with role-play and history taking, we still had a lot of work to do as the scenarios were far more challenging.

This week however, they had a reprieve from taking part in role-play.

I had been asked by the clinical lead Pete Gorman to deliver a session on communication theory and to talk about the practical challenges students face when talking to a difficult patient.

Whenever we communicate we interact both verbally and non-verbally, and understanding how we can make this work would take more than this short article. Here is a brief synopsis of what we discussed.

There are four legs to effective communication and these are:

  • Rapport
  • Behavioural Flexibility
  • Sensory Acuity
  • Knowing your Outcome

Rapport is key to successful communication. Indeed without rapport it is very difficult to influence anyone, whether that be to make behavioral change or to take a simple history. We have all had that experience with another person when we feel we just connect. We sometimes find ourselves engaged in a conversation with a stranger and feel that they are just like us. That is rapport. People deeply in love have rapport to the extent that they mirror each others’ posture, language and even breathing patterns. That is rapport.

Interacting With A Patient Whilst Performing A Systems Exam Is Crucial To Building And Maintaining Rapport
Interacting With A Patient Whilst Performing A Systems Exam Is Crucial To Building And Maintaining Rapport

In order to be effective in our communications with patients we must also be aware of the continuous process of feedback. It is important to know whether we are getting what we want from our communication. To do this effectively we must have sensory acuity. We notice  changes in physiology, breathing, eye accessing and language patterns. Armed with this information we can build rapport more authentically and deepen the relationship with the patient.

Once we have noticed these seemingly imperceptible cues, we can help the patient make better decisions and connect fully with the health professional. Using these tools will allow the clinician to help the patient to have a greater awareness of the choices available to them in the present, rather than have these choices restricted by past experiences and out-dated responses. This is what we sometimes call motivational interviewing.

Finally, everything you achieve is an outcome. If you are successful in your endeavours; that is an outcome. If you don’t succeed, that is still an outcome. Whatever we do results in an outcome. In order to achieve desirable outcomes we need to effectively model what works and then go out and do it! Rehearsal through role-play is the key to achieving positive outcomes when taking a history. You will always get what you ask for! Ask in the correct way and you will achieve your goal.

Whilst all of the above should be noted there are other important considerations that a clinician should be aware of in history taking.

I asked the students to remember the following when taking a history.

  • Presenting complaints – This is a list of the main symptoms or problems.
  • History of presenting complaint – This is an in-depth description the the presenting compliant.
  • Previous medical history – This is a comprehensive list of the all the illnesses, conditions and operation the patient has had in the past.
  • Drug history – A list of all of the patients medications and any allergies they may have.
  • Family history – Ask about conditions that run in the family.
  • Social history – This includes information about home, occupation, hobbies and habits. This would include smoking, drinking and illicit drug use.
  • Systems review – This a checklist of closed questions for every organ system in the body.

Using open and closed questions is an important skill. Closed questions at the start of a consultations encourage short yes and no type answers. Not good for building rapport in the opening stages of a meeting. Open questions encourage the patient to talk and that can be useful. Save the closed questions for gathering a quick response.

Engaging The Patient Both Verbally And Non Verbally Is Crucial For Building And Maintaining Rapport
Engaging The Patient Both Verbally And Non Verbally Is Crucial For Building And Maintaining Rapport

A common question I get from students is what factors hinder good communication? The list is extensive and I’ve seen and heard them all, but here are a few.

A badly worded introduction where you don’t clearly say your name. Not remembering the patients name, embarrassment, lack of curiosity, not asking the right types of questions, not making the right amount of eye contact, misreading body language, making assumptions, not listening actively, missing cues, not knowing how to deal with an answer, an over talkative patient, misunderstandings, making assumptions about the patient, stacking questions, judgemental behaviours. There are so many!

At the end of the session I gave students strategies to go away and practice. We always have opportunities every day to practice our communication skills. Unless you’re a hermit of course!

Check out the interactions between Mark and Bob on the video and if you are an actor interested in becoming a medical role-player and want to take it to the next level get in touch and join our growing ACE team. We will be posting dates for the next ACE training soon.