Medical student Brit Trogen argues that metaphor is not only an important tool in doctor-patient communication but that physicians should be trained to use the most effective metaphors to deliver medical information. Her recent article “The Evidence-Based Metaphor,” uses the example of the medical student’s simulated patient encounter, where actors portray patients and then provide feedback to aspiring physicians about their communication skills. All medical students go through rigorous testing to ensure they can manage the science of medicine, but the more nuanced communication skills required to be an effective clinician can be more difficult to both train and test. Trogen wonders what if there were a way to help guide young physicians toward better communication with their patients, thereby improving the health and well-being of those they’re tasked to care for.
Trogen notes that time pressures are evident for physicians in today’s medical system: “With appointment times creeping ever shorter, a physician may have only moments to explain a complicated scientific concept to his or her patient in a way that is both clear and memorable.” I struggle with this every day in my own practice; many of these concepts take years of study to understand fully. How can they best be distilled down so patients can make a truly informed decision?
I appreciate Trogen’s idea to promote “evidence-based communication” just like we adhere to the values of evidence-based medicine. This is the idea that the treatments we prescribe, the screening modalities we suggest, the procedures we perform be based on research-driven facts, substantiated studies that show that this plan is the best course of action for most. Instead of basing medical care on a whim, it’s based on evidence. Research-based evidence could also have a role in how best to convey information to patients effectively in a time limited way.
Do you agree with Trogen that physicians would be more effective if equipped with better communication tools, rather than just scientific knowledge? What do you think about her statement that “knowledge is important, but not always sufficient?” As a primary care physician, much of my day is spent helping patients brainstorm how they can remember to take their medications, what changes could be made in their lifestyle to add in some exercise or improve their diet, why they should consider a colonoscopy or cutting back on alcohol or get certain screening tests based on family history. I know I’ve honed some of my own communication skills over my years in practice, but I would welcome a way to reach each patient, if possible, in a more effective and proven way.
Writing Prompt: Do you recall a physician using a metaphor to describe a treatment plan, disease process or other medical process? Was it helpful? Write about the experience. If you’re a medical provider, think of something you often counsel patients about. Try brainstorming metaphors or consider writing a complete fable on this topic. Alternatively, think about a doctor-patient interaction that hinged on very good (or very poor) communication. Describe the encounter and the benefit or consequences. Write for 10 minutes.