Higher education: acquiring people skills
I sometimes wonder why senior medical practitioners are called ‘consultants’. Indeed you could ask why a visit to such an expert is described as a ‘consultation’. It certainly won’t involve the patient very much in expressing a view. From the consultant’s perspective the ‘consultation’ will consist of (usually) him telling you what is the matter with your health and then announcing ex cathedra what he is going to do about it. Your assessment of the merits of what he proposes is neither here nor there. Even your follow-up questions may be seen as something of an assault on the consultant’s professional integrity. So, however a medical consultant may approach his professional role, one suspects that his impact on the patient’s state of mind and mood is not often at or near the top of the agenda.
So are medical students not encouraged to think of their professional role in terms that involve the human dimension? Well, in one American college this is now being addressed. At the new Virginia Tech Carilion medical school student applicants have to show that they have ‘the social skills to navigate a health care system in which good communication has become critical.’ What the medical school is looking for is the potential for a ‘pleasant bedside manner and an attentive ear’, as well as good communication skills that would work between doctors.
This sounds like a good idea, and if others follow suit it may be that over time consultants will show greater people skills and sensitivity. But it is arguable that people skills and good communication would help in other subject areas also. Law would be an obvious example – a profession in which senior barristers can actually beat medical consultants in terms of arrogance and insensitivity. It is important that a university education does not prompt graduates to consider themselves to be socially superior. It is time to do something about the human dimension in the professions whose members we educate.