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I have completed bits of my EM training from India. Currently I am boarded with credentials from Christian Medical College, Vellore and also from the prestigious Royal College of Emergency Medicine, UK.  I am currently working in London as an A&E doctor, trying to appreciate the differences in the practise and culture of Emergency Medicine across different healthcare systems. I have always been an avid FOAMed supporter because FOAMed played an indispensable role during the days of my initial training. Through this blog, I aspire to disseminate knowledge and stay up to date with the EM literature. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

For people who think ED is a cocoon - Think again!!

As emergency physicians we need to speak a lot to different people in the ED and the fact that people are so different from each other makes the task very challenging. Communication plays an important role in the smooth running of the ED. Since ED is an emotionally charged area, where patient’s attenders constantly look up to the doctor for his next words about the condition of the patient and next course of action, conflicts sprout up very easily when we lack effective communication skills.  The words we speak, thus makes a (huge) difference! We are what we speak!

General rules:

1. Recognize there’s something called ‘Transference and countertransference’:  Some patients don’t like you without any seemingly obvious explanations or reasons and the vice versa also sometimes holds good. Have you thought why?

Transference is the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present. The process is at least partly inappropriate to the present” (patient might think ‘this doc seems to be an idiot’)

“Countertransference is the response that is elicited in the recipient (therapist) by the other's (patient's) unconscious transference communications” (Might make you think ‘this guys is such a pain in the a**)

Awareness of the transference–countertransference allows reflection and thoughtful response rather than unproductive reaction from the doctor.

2. Introduce yourself: Does that require more introductions? May be yes! Often we have seen doctors who just jump in and start checking for abdominal tenderness without even uttering a word while the patient stares at the doctor thinking “Who the heck is this guy?”

 Often we think this isn’t important (especially in India!)  . This often is the first step towards building a good rapport.  Say who you are. How do you expect the patient to know that you are the emergency physician who’s gonna treat him now?!

3. When there’s a crowd/mob of relatives, try to keep only 1-2 attenders inside the ED.

Make them understand that crowding will hinder the progress of treatment in the ED and will add to unnecessary confusion. Tell this in a convincing way rather than a paternalistic manner.

4. Find out to whom you are speaking to? How’s he related to the patient? When asking history, LISTEN before you speak

 (Interrupt only when you think he’s describing how USA captured Osama when asked about chest pain of the patient)

5. Don’t be Judgmental: Never ever judge a person before you get to know the complete story. Don’t get carried away by your biases (Yes, each one of us is biased). Put yourself in other person’s shoes (‘Chappals’?! Ok that will also do) before you judge someone!

6. Use Please, Thank you and Sorry SOS

7. Be confident about what you speak. Most of the scuttle in the ED starts when we are not confident of what we are speaking.

It’s always good to mentally prepare ourselves before we speak to the relatives about the patient. Be clear about the present condition and next plan of action. Brief them if you have any concerns. One of the most common questions we encounter is “Is he out of danger?” Be very (you can add few more VERYs) cautious when you answer this question. The answer usually cannot be a mere YES or NO. Explain that to the relatives and make sure they understand the gravity of the situation.

Before we look at how to speak to the attenders, let’s try to classify different types of attenders we see in the ED commonly followed by Dos and DONTs in communication wrt each groups.

1. Parents of a sick child:
These are a special population and would require special care as they are genuinely concerned about the health of the child (No, we aren’t talking about Munchausen’s) and most of the times very anxious.

  • Reassure them: Say everything has been in place for the wellbeing of the child. Update them about the general condition of the child. Quickly give an overview of differential diagnoses after the initial assessment and the next plan of action.
  • Make sure you address the primary ‘cause of concern’ – It’s not uncommon to hear ‘’Head of the child becomes hotter than the rest of the body’’ being the primary concern of the parents while you are more worried about the pneumonia and low SpO2. Make sure you address the primary concern by suitable explanation as you discus your concerns.
  • When parents say something is abnormal about child’s behavior, BELIEVE! (Yes, they know better)
  • ANALGESIA IN KIDS IS AS IMPORTANT AS IN ADULTS. Discuss regarding analgesia in detail with parents. Provide good analgesia. Involve senior on the shift, ED consultant, Pediatrics/Pediatric EM consultants when in doubt about dosages. (It’s not always half tablet Paracetamol)
  • Try non-pharmacological modalities for relieving pain/anxiety. Distraction often really works as an adjunct to the medicines for pain.
  • Read this article about pediatric specific techniques that can be adopted in the ED on REBEL EM: http://rebelem.com/7-pediatric-hacks-for-your-ed/

  • Don’t be judgmental about the parents or the child (Not all kids complaining pain abdomen are malingering)
  • Don’t be rude / cruel to the kid or parents. If the kid is not cooperating that shows your inability to deal with the kid and not kid’s issues with coping.

2. Angry attender: Angry people are a common finding in EDs. The reason for anger could be multiple; ranging from waiting time in the ED to grief reaction upon the death of a patient. (Sometimes even the non-functional Air conditioner)

DOs and DONTs
  • Find out the reason for the anger and offer him help.
  • Be gentle in your approach. Taking him to a room and offering him some water would help. Put possible practical solutions before him if the reason for the anger is genuine.
  • Be safe when speaking to such attenders. Involve senior on the shift or keep him informed. Don’t put yourself at risk of physical harm.  Keep the security informed about the situation if you sense that the person is a ‘trouble maker’.
  • Never raise your voice or be angry. Don’t lose your cool.

3. Overtly anxious attender

   This problem is commonly encountered when dealing with kids. But a good conversation with the parents would solve the problem. 
    When there’s anxiousness ‘out of proportion’ to the existing problem despite being explained about the condition would say two things: 1) The person is generally over anxious (Type A personalities) 2) Case of abuse, troubled relationships, harassment, etc. Always keep the later in mind and offer help to the patient in every possible way.

4. Unruly Crowd / Mob
This is a serious problem especially if you are working in India. Even though there are tough laws dealing with violence against healthcare providers, there are serious lapses when it comes to implementation of these laws. So it has become a regular menace to the doctors and emergency physicians are undoubtedly the most susceptible group when compared to other specialties. Some hospitals have even gone to the extent of hiring private bodyguards (bouncers) as a safety measure. (Read: http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/indian-hospitals-hire-bouncers-to-deter-attacks-498923)

Your safety is of prime importance when you work in the ED. Most of these incidences occur when there is presumed negligence by the doctor / hospital staff.

  • All the general rules apply in this situation as well.        
  • Keep the security informed.
  • Keep the local police informed about the situation
  • Let the ED Head and the hospital administration know about the situation.
  • Try to calm down the situation by whatever means you can. (If you can’t do this, at least don’t add fuel to the fire)
5. ‘Obsessive compulsive googler with internet based diagnosing skills’.

Ah! You know what I’m talking about!
‘I know everything-I have diagnosed myself with ABC variant of XYZ disease-Just came here to check how good doctor’s knowledge of the condition is-I already self-medicated with PQR drug-Would like to undergo 123 test-I will never be happy if the test results are negative or if you tell me I’m wrong-I will find problems with all your advices and prescriptions-Your Paracetamol will damage my liver and you are still giving it to me-I don’t need solutions at all’ types.
Dealing with this kind of people is indeed a very tough job.
-        Be PATIENT while they check your patience.
-        Like the great men said – “Use individualized approach” 

6. Attenders with ‘VIP-syndrome’
Again this seems more to be an India-specific problem.
An unknown person wearing white shirt and white pant enters the ED from nowhere and almost inserts his mobile phone into doctor’s mouth saying “Baat karo…Baat karo..Saab se baat karo” (Speak…Speak…Speak to the master) before you even take a glimpse at the patient.

Keep your calm. Make them understand that you would speak to whoever it is on the
phone once you see and assess the patient.

Involve senior on shift and administrative staff early in case you sense some trouble.

These are some of the tips that are helpful for an effective communication in the ED. I hope this would have helped you just like a revision tool for the communication course (Your ED rotations) you have undergone all through these years. 

Thank you!

  1. “Transference and countertransference in communication between doctor and patient”
  2. Patricia Hughes, Ian Kerr Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Jan 2000, 6 (1) 57-64; DOI: 10.1192/apt.6.1.57
  3. Oxford handbook of emergency medicine: General approach.
  4. Emergency department violence http://www.acep.org/workarea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=81782
  5. “Doctor-Patient Communication: A Review” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3096184/ PMCID: PMC3096184
  6. “Effective physician-patient communication and health outcomes: a review.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7728691


                 Dr. Apoorva Chandra
                 Resident, Emergency medicine         
                 Apollo health city, Hyderabad                                                         
                 Twitter: @apoorvamagic    


  1. Beautifully put and very practical explanation! I believe you speak for all ER physicians in India. Congrats Dr. Apoorva. Lakshay..... Great job!

  2. Thank you Ravi for the kind words :)

  3. Lakshay is doing great job dude.kindly pass ur mobile no.I'm anesthesiologist from kerala