Forgive me if this week’s E-News column starts on a personal note, but bear with me—the theme relates to medical education and health care delivery. This past Tuesday night, Susan and I were pleased and honored to be invited to the opening of an exhibit of my brother Rob’s artwork in the prestigious Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit, entitled FLOAT, had his pieces embedded among the more classical artwork in the Museum’s collection. Although I’m hardly impartial, the show was spectacular! If you happen to travel to New York, I think that you’d find a visit to Brooklyn interesting. The exhibit runs through January 6, 2019.
At a dinner in his honor after the opening, Rob was interviewed by the curator of the museum where he talked about his evolution as an artist. He indicated that when he attended Pratt Institute years ago as a young artist, he was an abstract expressionist, as were most of his fellow students. But because he didn’t feel that style of art allowed him to tell his story adequately, over the past two decades he evolved his style to use glass objects as part of an installation (typically installed on the wall of a gallery or home). Some of his pieces use provocative phrases (for example, “Masquerade”) to highlight the theme and feelings that he’s exploring. At the dinner conversation, Rob explained that his current style allows him to tell his story better than his prior approach.
So what does this have to do with medical stuff? His answer got me thinking about the power and importance of language in what we do—especially in health education and taking care of patients. In this era of electronic health records, increasing automation, and other frankly dehumanizing elements in medicine and health care, the value of precise language and good communication skills is more obvious than ever. One of the areas where we see a real opportunity to expand the components of health care delivery is in telemedicine, where a computer or other electronic variant is used to connect patient and provider—a virtual visit, if you will, where we bring the clinic to the patient, rather than have the patient go to the clinic.
This is especially important in rural areas of North Dakota, and offers the promise of augmenting and expanding our ability to bring high-quality health care to both rural and otherwise less-than-mobile patients. But to use telemedicine effectively requires the employment of optimal language and communication skills. Interrupting a patient who is explaining her problem after only 12 seconds (the average length of time it took before residents in a recent study interrupted patients) certainly doesn’t promote good communication. And it is especially tempting for interlocutors of all types to interrupt each other over a screen, when they’re not even in the same room as each other.
We take this problem seriously at the UND SMHS and try to mitigate the tendency to interrupt during our practice sessions with students. But interrupting remains a challenge, even for me, with decades of experience as a clinician.
What is clear, then, is that whether you are a cardiologist or an artist, language matters, and genuine communication is founded not on monologue but dialogue and language skills.
As we labor to improve and optimize our medical and health sciences educational programs and offerings—especially as we dip our toes deeper into telehealth—we need to remember and reinforce the importance of language and communication skills.
Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
UND Vice President for Health Affairs
Dean, UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences