Tuesday, 21 December 2010

'I counted then all out and I counted them all back'

I was sad to hear today of the death of the journalist Brian Hanrahan who died yesterday at the age of 61 years of colon cancer.

In the early days of the Falklands conflict he was based on HMS Hermes when a number of Harrier Jump jets left on a sortie. Government restrictions prevented him giving any real detail of the mission but he was able to provide wonderful reassurance by coining the phrase, 'I'm not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back'. It was an inspired choice of language and eventually found its way into the Oxford Book of Quotations.

Words really do matter. Communication skills are absolutely vital not just for journalists but also for doctors. Over many years I taught communication skills to undergraduate medical students at the Royal Free Hospital school of medicine (Now UL!!). They were often underwhelmed by the subject and found it rather soft and of somewhat secondary importance to the glamour of transplants and implantable defibrillators. How I wish I could have fast forwarded their careers 20 years. Much of the stress of being a doctor can be obviated by anticipating patient's concerns, explaining procedures and prognoses well, choosing language carefully and being a first class listener. All this and more under the rubric of communication skills.

Patients will forgive a wrong injection, a wrong diagnosis and perhaps even failed treatment, but seldom forgive rudeness, insensitivity and thoughtlessness. When a formal complaint is made against you, you'll wish taken communication more seriously.
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