Missed opportunities: a descriptive assessment of teaching and attitudes regarding communication skills in a surgical residency

Olivia A Hutul, Robert O Carpenter, John L Tarpley, Kimberly D Lomis
Current Surgery 2006, 63 (6): 401-9

BACKGROUND: The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) requires that "residents must be able to demonstrate interpersonal and communication skills that result in effective information exchange and teaming with patients, their patients' families, and professional associates." The authors sought to assess current methods of teaching and attitudes regarding communication skills in their surgical residency.

METHODS: After obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) exemption, voluntary anonymous surveys were completed by a sample of convenience at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center: surgical residents at Grand Rounds and attending surgeons in a faculty meeting. Data were evaluated from 49 respondents (33 of 75 total surgical residents, 16 representative attending surgeons).

RESULTS: One hundred percent of respondents rated the importance of communication to the successful care of patients as "4" or "5" of 5. Direct attending observation of residents communicating with patients/families was confirmed by residents and faculty. Residents reported varying levels of comfort with different types of conversations. Residents were "comfortable" or "very comfortable" as follows: obtaining informed consent, 91%; reporting operative findings, 64%; delivering bad news, 61%; conducting a family conference, 40%; discussing do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, 36%; and discussing transition to comfort care, 24%. Resident receptiveness to communication skills education varied with proposed venues: 84% favored teaching in the course of routine clinical care, 52% via online resources, and 46% in workshops. Residents were asked how frequently they received feedback specific to their communication skills during the past 6 months: Most residents reported 0 (39%) or 1 (21%) feedback episode. Only 30% of resident respondents reported receiving feedback that they perceived helpful. Attending surgeons reported that they did provide residents feedback specific to their communication skills. When asked to estimate the number of feedback episodes in the last 6 months, 16 faculty members reported a total of 67 feedback episodes, whereas 33 residents reported a total of only 24 episodes. Most faculty members rated their comfort with providing feedback specific to communication skills as "very comfortable" (56%) or "comfortable" (19%). "Time constraints" was the most frequently cited barrier to teaching communication skills.

CONCLUSIONS: Communication skills are valued as integral to patient care by both residents and faculty in this study. Residents are most receptive to teaching of communication skills in the clinical setting. Faculty members report they are providing feedback to residents. Although residents report direct observation by faculty, currently only a minority (30%) are receiving feedback regarding communication that they consider helpful. A need exists to facilitate the feedback process to resolve this discrepancy. The authors propose that an evaluation instrument regarding communication skills may strengthen the feedback process.

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