Should Pathologists Communicate with Patients?

Public and media, these days, talk about doctors lacking proper communication skills. Inability to communicate effectively leads us to troublesome and undesirable circumstances sometimes. Pathologists are doctors behind the microscopes. But is it their only job to look at the slides and sign out reports? Don’t they need to interact and communicate with the clinicians or the patients?

The answer to the question is YES!! A pathologist is expected to have effective communication not only with the clinicians but also with the patients. Now, this may be an eyebrow raiser for many who think that it is only the clinicians’ prerogative to interact with the patients. But ironically, it is rather more important and relevant for a pathologist to talk and discuss the interpretations and more so, the consequences of the report which has been signed out by he/she himself/herself, with the patient.

Gone are the days when pathologists used to sit behind closed doors with their eyes glued to the microscopes (and sometimes even reference books!) with little or no interaction with the patients. During my practice of Pathology, I have realized that it is equally important for a pathologist to interact with the patient and their family. The reasons for these are:

  1. Most of the time the test requisitions are not accompanied with a proper clinical and therapeutic history of the patient. In these situations, it is always better to have a word with the patient himself regarding the relevant history in order to correlate with the results which we sign out. Trust me; this gesture also makes the patient feel that we care. As Terry Canale in his Vice Presidential Address at American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons rightly mentioned ‘‘the patient will never care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’’

  2. Secondly, most often, the patients fail to interpret the findings mentioned in the report and also the medical language (read jargons) used especially in cytopathology/histopathology reports. They keep on wondering and worrying about the report interpretation until they get an appointment with the treating clinician, who explains the report findings to them. Why don’t we, as pathologists, come forward to talk to the patients when we dispatch the reports and try to explain the findings to them ourselves? This will spare the patient of unnecessary worry and tension and not only so, if communicated properly, will generate a feeling of confidence and well-being in the patient.

More than that, we as pathologists are in a better position than the clinicians, to explain the medical terms and jargons that we ourselves are using! As was rightly said by Mossanen that “pathology reports are written at reading levels above the average reading capability of most Americans”.

In this era of ‘patient-centered care’ we as pathologists should try our best to expand our roles and broaden our outlook so as to provide a holistic and better care to our beneficiaries i.e. the patients. This we can only do if we come out of our own comfort zones and try to comfort the patients in their agony.

There are many strategies as to how we can go ahead with communicating with the patients. I shall come up with those strategies in my next blog….. So, keep track and enjoy reading!