4 tips for medical students to improve patient communication

Many students are rejoining patient-facing roles after months away from the wards to aid the safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communication skills are an essential part of medical training, and particular emphasis and meaning are important when you start interacting with patients during clinical rotations. Establishing and improving excellent patient communication practices is indeed something that physicians do throughout their careers. Here are some useful tips that medical students can use early on to hit the ground running.

First impressions count

The first several minutes of any clinical encounter are invaluable. There are many duties to be completed during a visit, such as questions to ask, problems to work through and resolve. It may seem logical to get stuck in straight away; however, if you dive straight into these tasks without listening to the patient first, you could potentially miss vital information.

Place any distractions aside so that your full attention is given to the patient; by doing so, you will find the right moments that reveal the patient’s true concerns or symptoms. Using subtle body language cues will show the patient you are listening intently. Sitting near to or facing the patient is a great starting point.

Ensure you aren’t sitting with your arms crossed; this can sometimes give the impression that you are not truly listening. You can also lean towards the patient and make good eye contact.

There is an excellent collection of improvements for your listening skills if you desire to read the article by AMA Steps Forward. Particularly the module based on “empathetic listening” could improve a patient’s experience by refining the initial moments of patient interaction.

Be watchful of using devices

It is important to inform the patient that you are using devices such as a smartphone or iPad to obtain information about the situation. Students are to be educated to request permission from the patient to use a phone in a consultation. It is important that medical students are properly prepared for using technology and letting the patient know they are using it for information purposes only. Students should use their phones with good intentions and make the patient aware that they are researching the latest evidence, etc.; otherwise, the patient could lose trust.

Avoid medical talk

Usually, health care experts wrongly assume that patients and their families fully understand what they have been told. However, often this isn’t the case, and when overwhelmed, a patient may just nod. This is an indication that there is a breakdown in communication.

Make it a team effort

If you are being irrespective of the staff rotation, there will be a need during clinical rotations to deliver constructive criticism at some point. When this happens, it is good to show patients collaborative thinking. To do this, work with them in an active way rather than a demanding way. A constructive critique can be a way for patient bonding when the message is delivered correctly. For example, using a “seven-to-one compliment ratio” is where one delivered seven compliments for every one statement of criticism.

Medical students usually show how supportive they are, by offering educational materials, websites, and resources to patients. These resources can help them to understand better the medical terminology and how they apply it to their treatment.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.