Academic asks: Should physicians never interrupt patients?

Doctor with patient
It isn't always bad for doctors to interrupt patients, says one academic.

It’s long been a taboo in medicine. Ever since a 1984 study showed that physicians on average interrupt patients after only 18 seconds during an encounter, doctors have been trained to resist that urge.

But Larry B. Mauksch, M.Ed., questions the wisdom of that common admonishment in a JAMA Network opinion piece.

“Can some interruptions improve the quality of care and help the patient and physician make better use of time? I believe the answer is yes,” writes Mauksch, a senior lecturer at the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Doctors, who are told to be good listeners, are often reluctant to interrupt patients, Mauksch says. In light of that 1984 study, medical students, residents and physicians have been instructed over the last 30 years not to interrupt patients when they are talking. Yet, not all interruptions—which patients are guilty of as well—are intrusive, competitive or an attempt to claim power, he says. In fact, both doctors and patients can be bad communicators.

There are situations in which interruptions can improve healthcare efforts and decrease physician stress, Mauksch adds, and physicians can use communication skills to make the best use of time during a patient visit. Interruptions can help keep a patient on track, help plan the visit and stay focused on the patient’s real problems, he says.

But Mauksch urges physicians to use what he calls the Triple E when interrupting: excuse yourself, emphasize that you have heard the patient’s concern and explain the reason for the interruption. Those allow a patient to feel involved and respected, he says, as physician empathy and good communication are key to patient satisfaction.