Resuscitating the Physician-Patient Relationship: Emergency Department Communication in an Academic Medical Center

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Vieth, Teri
He, Theresa
Miller, Annette
Howes, David S
Bailey, Olivia
Walter, James
Frankel, Richard
Levinson, Wendy

Study objective: We characterize communication in an urban, academic medical center emergency department (ED) with regard to the timing and nature of the medical history survey and physical examination and discharge instructions. Methods: Audiotaping and coding of 93 ED encounters (62 medical history surveys and physical examinations, 31 discharges) with a convenience sample of 24 emergency medicine residents, 8 nurses, and 93 nonemergency adult patients. Results: Patients were 68% women and 84% black, with a mean age of 45 years. Emergency medicine providers were 70% men and 80% white. Of 62 medical history surveys and physical examinations, time spent on the introduction and medical history survey and physical examination averaged 7 minutes 31 seconds (range 1 to 20 minutes). Emergency medicine residents introduced themselves in only two thirds of encounters, rarely (8%) indicating their training status. Despite physician tendency (63%) to start with an open-ended question, only 20% of patients completed their presenting complaint without interruption. Average time to interruption (usually a closed question) was 12 seconds. Discharge instructions averaged 76 seconds (range 7 to 202 seconds). Information on diagnosis, expected course of illness, self-care, use of medications, time-specified follow-up, and symptoms that should prompt return to the ED were each discussed less than 65% of the time. Only 16% of patients were asked whether they had questions, and there were no instances in which the provider confirmed patient understanding of the information. Conclusion: Academic EDs present unique challenges to effective communication. In our study, the physician-patient encounter was brief and lacking in important health information. Provision of patient-centered care in academic EDs will require more provider education and significant system support.

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Postprint version. Published in Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 44, Issue 3, September 2004, pages 262-267. Publisher URL: At the time of publication, author Karin V. Rhodes was affiliated with the University of Chicago. Currently, she is a faculty member of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
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