Fort Worth, Texas,
15:16 PM

The doctor will you hear you now

Communication mistakes doctors make and how you can make it better

So, your baby can’t sleep on his side, but your mom says he will sleep better that way.

You decide to seek out some information online and you find this:

“Although data to make specific recommendations as to when it is safe for infants to sleep in the prone or side position are lacking, studies that have established prone and side sleeping as risk factors for SIDS include infants up to 1 year of age. Therefore, infants should continue to be placed supine until 1 year of age. Once an infant can roll from supine to prone and from prone to supine, the infant can be allowed to remain in the sleep position that he or she assumes.”

AAP SIDS and Safe Sleep Guidelines


Hopefully none of us really talk this way, but I have a feeling sometimes it’s close. Doctors have a notoriously bad rap for their handwriting; fortunately, we’ve mostly fixed that with electronic records. Unfortunately, some of us aren’t known for our amazing verbal communication skills, either.

A study released in Pediatrics this week highlighted this fact. The authors surveyed mothers of 4-6 months old babies about the education they received from their doctor when their baby was a newborn.

They asked the mom if they received advice on the following topics: vaccination, breastfeeding, sleep position, sleep location and pacifier use.

All of these seem like pretty basic newborn information. Most doctors would want to cover them during that time frame. They all are included in very specific guidelines with clear instructions for how the American Academy of Pediatrics wants us to educate our patients?

How did the doctors do? The following percentages reflect the number of mother’s who reported receiving correct advice for the respective topics:

Vaccination 86.3%
Breastfeeding 62.8%
Sleep position 54.5%
Sleep location 19.9%
Pacifier use  11.0%

1. Does it seem like we’re speaking in a foreign language?

For many cases, the study showed that either the doctors failed to mention some pretty important topics or they weren’t presented in a way that parents understood or remembered.

One of the reasons I love to write is that it forces me to have clear thoughts about the medical issues I deal with every day and to focus on clear strategies for communicating those thoughts to patients. Of course, I’m not perfect. Here are some of the communication mistakes I (and from the results of this study, other doctors) make and some strategies for the way things should go (with help from you of course):

Some people describe the first few years of medical school as being more or less a foreign language study. During those years, medical students learn terms that most people don’t need to know. We use them as a way to communicate with other doctors as we begin to learn from “real” patients in the later years. The problem is we sometimes forget that we can’t talk that way all the time if we want to be understood by our families.

How can you help us while we work to get better?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to stop us if you don’t understand. Your child’s health is important to us. We know that you have to understand our instructions if we want to have any chance to help your child stay healthy or get better when they are sick. Ask us to slow down or to re-explain a certain concept again if what we say doesn’t make sense.

2. Have we given you the best opportunity to hear us?

This newborn study is a perfect example of this. A newborn mom is tired and stressed and getting health advice from the nurse, the doctor, their family and the Internet, so what usually ends up happening? We rush right through with the messages that are important to us and hope that mom gets them in 5 minutes.

Thanks for coming in. Good luck, mom!

Other examples are when we deliver bad news or just simply have a baby with an ear infection that is screaming in pain while we get louder and louder to make sure we are “heard.”

How can you help us while we work to get better?

Some are easier than others. When we’ve delivered bad news, there’s probably nothing either of us can do to help in that situation. But we should definitely slow down and wait a minute to let you think before we plow through into “next steps.”

If your baby is fussy and you can’t concentrate, feel free to ask if a nurse could come help for a second while we talk. Even if the baby stays in the room, just having them out of your arms makes it easier to listen. During those newborn visits when you are sleep deprived, ask for resources that you can take home and read when your mind is a little more clear (if that every actually happens for any of us with newborns).

3. We try to cover everything, but did we focus on what you want to learn?

This has another medical school analogy. Some people refer to the first few years of medical school as “trying to drink from a firehose.” There is so much information coming so quickly, you have to learn how to decide what is important enough to waste brain space on and what can be discarded (or “Googled”) later. So, when it comes to giving advice, we assume that you can do the same. The other assumption we make is that you actually care about the things that are important to us.

How can you help us while we work to get better?

First and foremost, please bring a list of questions. This helps us to focus on the things that are important to you, which are the things that you are going to remember anyway. As I get to know my “listers” better, I tend to grab (nicely) the list out of their hands and start writing the answers down (in ugly doctor scrawl) as we go along.

This is another time when asking for resources can be really helpful. Ask us to highlight or point out sections that are related to what you have talked about in the visit. Now, for this strategy to work, the resources have to come out of the diaper bag before they get formula and other baby fluids spilled on them - better yet, maybe they can just be pulled up on your phone …

I work hard to avoid these mistakes. But as I said, I’m not perfect. Communication is vital between a pediatrician and a parent. In the medical community, it looks like we have a lot of work to do.

Fortunately, we have some great examples at Cook Children’s to learn from.

But we can all get better with your help and feedback.

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