Beneath the paper drape of the “2:30 OB Confirmation” lies your next patient. Despite the application of the ultrasound study performed, a variety of stressors wreak havoc on a patient’s mental state prior to examination. The impact of what we say and how we say it, or the very lack of it, can shape a person’s view of testing, staff, or even healthcare as a whole. Yet, how much of an emphasis in ultrasound training is placed on effective communication? Especially in obstetrics where early pregnancy loss is prevalent, a blank stare at the monitor and averted eyes feels disconnected and insensitive. Let’s ask ourselves:
- How do we, as ultrasound providers, communicate with our patients?
- Do we attempt to provide comfort or empathy when needed?
- How important is this interaction to our patients?
We owe it to quality patient care to take a deeper dive.
In settings where our patients show fear, stress, or grief, what’s your dialogue?
How should it look and sound?
Perhaps your patient, waiting nervously under the drape, presents with a poor OB history. Performing an ultrasound examination should encompass more than the stoic mechanical bedside manner. We should engage with the person behind the diagnosis code.
We see it often in OB. Despite reassurances of last week’s scan and normally-rising labs post early spotting, the patient leaves her appointment only to consult Dr. Google where she absorbs every related link about bleeding in pregnancy from previa to placental abruption. It’s been the L O N G E S T week of her life, and she’s sure fate will deliver yet another D&C instead of the child she desires. Miscarriage is the kind of trauma that leaves a woman emotionally scarred and fearful that history will repeat itself. It’s imperative we contemplate the real trepidation some patients feel for their examinations—and act accordingly.
For the brief time a patient resides in our care, we sonographers control the environment. We drive the equipment, manage the time, and guide our patients. It is completely within our power to greet them with warmth and direct eye contact, to adopt a caring tone in our explanations, to ensure comfort in our care, and to assure answers for their questions—where we can.
It’s a fine balancing act, isn’t it? …A tightrope walk between what we sonographers can share with an inquiring patient and what we cannot. Though protocols vary, we all surely must learn what information we are allowed to impart. Precisely how we convey it is up to us. After all, our patients must disrobe before a perfect stranger who is not their physician; in turn, we must overcome the propensity for a swift robotic contest against the clock to be more attentive. We may not manage a patient’s care, but for a short time, we are a patient’s provider and caregiver. The interchange with our patients is as much an integral part of our job as is concise reporting.
Effective patient communication should be a cornerstone of every curriculum and commence as early as learning sagittal versus transverse. Every veteran sonographer who relishes the confidence of cultivated skill and experience began the same way. Typically, navigating this technology for most students requires a long learning curve to perform it well and accurately. It’s quite easy for the initial focus to lie with capturing textbook images, not connecting with the patient. Learning appropriate and competent dialogue is as imperative as exam protocol. The new sonographer must observe and mimic this personal interaction before the first steps beyond the classroom.
Conversely, the skillful sonographer, buried in the demands of a hectic patient load, may lose the tendency over time to prioritize this communication. Juggling the demands of a full schedule with urgent add-ons and after-hours call, we sometimes end up fanning the flames of burnout where a slide into the hurried robotic pace of patient-in, patient-out feels unavoidable. Don’t lose sight of the importance of your work and who depends on you. Every patient you scan lies on your table, and your’s alone. We are each responsible for the level of quality care we provide.
Now, examine your own daily patient interactions. Are they mechanical and rushed? Or do you take the time to employ earnest conversation? Do you attempt to allay fears or offer an empathetic tone when needed? Do you extend the care you would want, need, and expect if on the receiving end of healthcare? I challenge each of you to put forth the very same degree of consideration you’d like for your mother, your sister, your daughter, yourself…if the white coat fear was your own, if the anxiety of a test result was your own, if the pregnancy loss was your own. The appreciation our patients show can mystifyingly renew a sense of purpose in our work today and fuel our career tomorrow.
So, what’s your dialogue?
Interested in learning more about communicating with patients? Check out the following posts from the Scan: