If you leave your doctor’s office feeling confused, or chiding yourself for forgetting to ask a crucial question, you’re not alone. According to international health communication expert Dr Jonathan Silverman, the communication breakdown between doctors and patients is a problem that needs to be addressed head-on worldwide – starting with the next generation of health professionals.

While Dr Silverman believes the onus is on doctors to ensure communication is clear and effective, he also offers patients some simple tips for getting the most from their appointment. “I encourage patients to make a list before they go to their appointment, to put on paper all the things they want to discuss with their doctor and get answers to.”

Dr Silverman’s research shows that communication breakdowns come from a combination of doctors not asking the right questions and patients not feeling confident enough to openly express their concerns. Being honest with your doctor is a great first step to establishing great communication, and can help your doctor create a treatment plan that’s individualised to your needs and lifestyle. “Doctors are highly focused on ‘what’s the matter’,” explains Dr Silverman. “But it’s important that the patient also explains what they are worried about and what actually matters to them in their life when they’re making choices about treatment options.”

Learning how to communicate effectively with patients, says Dr Silverman, is a skill that’s just as important for doctors to master as learning to conduct physical examinations. “Everyone would agree that medical students have to learn to conduct a physical examination, but health students often feel that communication is a bit fluffy – that it’s an extra,” says Dr Silverman. “But it’s not. Communication skills are absolutely central to a doctor’s clinical competence.”

Dr Silverman is President of the European Association of Communication in Healthcare. He is well known as one of the authors of the Calgary-Cambridge Guides to the Medical Interview, a framework for describing the medical interview and incorporating a comprehensive set of skills referenced to the current evidence.

Dr Silverman recently visited the University of Newcastle to speak at the inaugural Leonie Joyce Martin lecture. Health professionals, medical students and academics gathered to hear Dr Jonathan share his extensive knowledge on the science of communication in medicine, and to participate in small-group workshops aimed at improving the teaching of medical communication skills to health students.