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Effectively Listening to Patients

By Robert E. Kravetz, MD, FACP, MACG, Retired Gastroenterologist

January 2023
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Quality communication is perhaps nowhere more important than when dealing with people who are ill and vulnerable. Hearing, an effective form of communication, is different from listening; the former implies perceiving sound, the later adds heeding and empathy. It is a privilege for a physician to hear patients speak of their emotional and physical pain and talk about their innermost feelings. They suffer fears, regrets, anxieties, and concerns and are anxious to be heard by an empathetic ear. Many patients complain that physicians are rushed, do not answer all their questions and often listen with a “deaf “ear.


Physicians must carefully choose their words because language can be very powerful. The imagination tends to run wild when the patient is ill and susceptible. Medical terminology or jargon must be avoided because it may not be understood. Seemingly innocent expressions, common medical parlance, can have a very powerful negative effect on the listener. As the patient-physician encounter can be limited, each word can assume monumental importance. Properly chosen words can fall upon the patient’s ears like dew, the wrong ones like a chilling rain.


Most physician are certainly not lacking in communication skills for they talk with peers, present cases at conferences or lecture clearly. When it comes to patients, however, it is almost as though communication was taking place in a foreign language. Physicians will rarely admit this as they think they are effectively communicating despite evidence that patients often fail to understand or remember what is said.


For effective listening it is necessary to spend a little extra time in order not to appear rushed.  Being attentive signifies interest and concern conveying the message that the patient is being heard listened to and understood. Without appearing judgmental or directive but rather being serene, the physician will elicit an outpouring of the patient’s feelings. Sometimes silence will provide the best listening ear; not interrupting indicates respect. Friendly body gestures that express concern and interest are simple ways that the physician can communicate effectively. A simple touch of the hand, yet carefully observing professional boundaries, will convey empathy. “If not now, when?”

Learn More About the Author:

Robert E. Kravetz, MD, FACP, MACG, received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine and trained as a Fellow in Gastroenterology at Yale with Dr. Howard Spiro from 1963-1965. He was in private practice until 1999 when he retired to pursue, on a more full time basis, his interest in 19th century American medicine. Recognized and honored in this area, Dr. Kravetz has published several books on the subject, numerous articles, been curator of several museum exhibits and appeared on both television and radio. His greatest passion has been teaching Humanism in Medicine to medical students and residents for the past 50 years and he actively continues in this endeavor. Dr. Kravetz resides in Phoenix, AZ, with his wife Nancy, three sons, their wives and grandchildren. He is quoted as viewing "life as an adventure and every day an opportunity for growth and new experiences."

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