Communication and Interpersonal Interactions (2023)

by Nicholas Mackin, Bret Nicks


Emergency Medicine and the situations within the department can present a stressful, rapidly changing environment where it may feel as though there is too little time for effective patient communication, patient-centered care, or the opportunity to establish an appropriate provider-patient relationship. It is also an environment unlike any other in medicine, where a unique team of individuals facing varying degrees of chaos with limited available information work together to address the medical conditions of those presenting to the department. Few would recommend entering such an environment in the absence of an established care process and means of clearly communicating. Understanding that preconceived notions and prejudices must remain at the door from the moment you walk in to the emergency department (ED) sets the tone for the entire shift.

It is no surprise that high-performing emergency departments have high-performing, well-communicating teams. Clearly defining and communicating why we are there and how we care for patients for every member of the team sets the tone for every interpersonal interaction.  This is true not just with our patient-provider interaction, but our interaction with nursing, ancillary, and consultant staff [1].  Establishing a team mentality and acknowledging the value of the contributions of our colleagues and staff to the ED is essential to practicing high-quality, safe emergency medical care.  

The skills that non-physician health professionals bring to the team can help us to better understand our patient’s expectations and needs – facilitating the best care that can be offered in the ED [2].

Essentials of Communication

The approach to provide high-quality patient care in the ED starts with recognizing the inherently mismatched perspective between the patient and physician [3]. It is essential to recognize the patient-physician relationship starts with a large power imbalance. Attempts should be made to normalize or reduce this power imbalance, so as to empower the patient and their families to openly discuss their medical concerns and assist with making informed decisions for their care. Acknowledge the wait or process they have already endured prior to seeing you.  Thank the patient (and family) for coming to the ED and allowing you to address their medical concerns.  Also, take the time to introduce yourself to everyone in the room with the patient and find out who they are in relation to the patient as this can help establish rapport with the patient and those around them [4-6]. When introducing yourself and other members of the care team, be sure to clearly define roles in terms the patient can understand. This is of particular importance when working with trainees. Patients tend to have a poor understanding of medical education and training, but want to know the role and level of training of their providers [7].

While many believe the environment of care is the greatest limiting factor to quality communication, literature would suggest otherwise. Establishing a positive patient-provider relationship is essential. Recognizing that you may not be able to solve the patient’s condition or chronic illness, but using effective communication skills and providing a positive patient experience will assuage many patient fears [8]. Keep in mind, in general, patients remember < 10% of the content (what was actually said), 38% of how you say it (verbal liking), and 55% of how you look saying it (body language) [3]. Effective provider communicators routinely employ these 5 Steps:

1. Be Genuine

Most people are able to quickly intuit when someone is not being forthcoming. Although we are often balancing competing interests for our time and attention, make every effort to ensure that you are taking a genuine, transparent approach to both receiving and providing information. An effective means of achieving this is to take an earnest interest in your patient. This often requires putting aside personal fatigue and bias. If you can entrain a genuine interest in a patient’s concerns, your interaction will be more natural and the patient will be more likely to trust you.

2. Be Present

As emergency providers, we are interrupted more than perhaps any other specialty.  However, for the brief time that we are engaged with the patient or their family, be fully attentive.  If there is a planned interruption upcoming, make it known prior to starting a discussion. Be focused on them and the conversation – and value what they have to share. At the end of your encounter, briefly summarizing what the patient has told you can help to reassure the patient that you were listening and also give them the chance to clarify discrepancies.

3. Ask Questions

To effectively communicate, one must listen more than they talk. After introducing yourself, inquire about the patient’s medical concern Give them 60 seconds of uninterrupted time.  Most patients provide unique insights that may otherwise not have been obtained. Then begin with the specific questions needed to further differentiate the care concern. By asking questions and allowing for answers, you make it about them and give them an avenue to share with you what they are most concerned about and allow you to address those concerns.

4. Build Trust

Given the nature of the patient-provider relationship in emergency medicine, building trust is essential but often difficult. Building trust is like building a fire, it starts with the initial contact and builds with each interaction – and is based on culturally acceptable interactions (e.g. handshake, affirming node, hand-on-shoulder, engaging posture, etc.) [4].

5. Communicate Directly

By the end of the initial encounter, ensure that you have established a clear plan of care, what the patient can expect, how long it may take, and when you will return to reassess or provide additional information. Doing this also allows the patient to be more involved in their care and ask further questions regarding their workup and treatment plan. Additionally, helping the patient to understand what they can expect while in the department can help to alleviate fear associated with unannounced tests or imaging studies, especially when these tests may require them to be temporarily taken out of the department (e.g. a trip to the CT scanner). While patients generally trust physicians to make decisions about advanced imaging such as CT, they still want to be included in the decision-making process [9].


When considering this, it is essential to understand that much of this relates to empathy – the ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. It is often said, try to understand the patient’s agenda: ‘Help me understand what brought you in today’, ‘help me understand what I can do for you’, ‘tell me more’. This will help to normalize the patient’s situation and gain unique insights into their care concerns.  There are 4 easy steps to improve reflective listening and perceived empathy in the ED:

  1. Echo: Repeat what the patient says; this gives the message that you heard the patient.
  2. Paraphrase: Rephrase what the patient says; this gives the message that you understand the patient.
  3. Identify the feeling: Say, for example ‘you seem frustrated’, ‘worried’, ‘upset’ as this produces trust.
  4. Validation: Validate the patient’s feelings verbally such as ‘I can see why you feel that way’.

It is human nature that empathy will be more intuitive for some, but all can practice empathic communication skills to better identify the needs of your patient. By implementing the above approach, physicians can improve their ability to elicit concerns that a patient may not have been able to otherwise articulate. Using a predefined approach may feel mechanical or forced, but standardized communication interventions have been shown to positively impact patients’ perception of the encounter [10].

For those seeking additional structure to practice, there is also a great online module and mnemonic for Empathetic Listening skills development [11]. The RELATE mnemonic is:

  • Reassure – share your qualifications and experience.
  • Explain – describe in clear concise language what the patient can expect.
  • Listen – not just hear and encourage the patient to ask questions.
  • Answer – summarize what they have said and confirm their understanding.
  • Take Action – discuss and define the care steps (and what to expect)
  • Express Appreciation – thank the patient for allowing you to care for them.

The Approach

As with many things, effective communication is the glue that helps establish connections to others and improve teamwork, decision-making, and problem solving. It facilitates the ability to convey even negative or difficult messages without creating conflict or distrust. Recognizing this, the right approach for successful patient communication is essential.  In addition to understanding the above 5 steps of effective communication, the approach to this must also be refined by each individual and adjusted for the unique circumstances of each patient encounter. For a moment, consider seeing the situation from the patient’s perspective regarding your approach and set the tone with these 3 starting points.

The 3 Starting Points:

1)     Approach and Appearance:

  • Sit down next to the patient
  • Maintain an open posture (avoid crossing your arms)
  • Maintain eye contact appropriate to local cultural norms
  • Use non-verbal cues to acknowledge what is being said (e.g. nodding, smiling, using eyes to show interest)
  • Dress appropriately

2)     How to speak:

  • Speak slowly and clearly (given the constraints of the ED)
  • Use a low, calm tone in your voice
  • Be mindful that patients will sense any frustration or impatience in your tone

3)     What to say:

  • Introduce yourself in a culturally appropriate manner
  • Use the patient’s last name, particularly if introducing yourself by your last name (this helps to minimize power imbalance)
  • Acknowledge everyone in the room and clarify their relationship to the patient
  • Adjust medical wording based on patient’s medical literacy

In addition to understanding the 5 essentials of communication and setting the tone with the initial care approach, it is important to understand some of the most common reasons communication is successful and fails in the Emergency Department.  While a single approach framework doesn’t always fit every situation, there are some essential Do’s and Don’ts that must also be considered.


  • Let the patient tell their story [9].
  • Establish the patient’s goals of the encounter.
  • Elicit any feared conditions or diagnoses, as well as any desired therapeutics or diagnostics (It is generally better to address these pre-existing desires early in the encounter).
  • Provide the patient with information regarding what will happen during their stay. This puts patients more at ease and improves satisfaction [6].
  • Provide honest estimates of expected wait times. Some experts suggest overestimating the time for results and consultant services (Disney Technique).
  • Explain reasons for delays, and readily apologize for
  • Map out the next steps in the process in the ED after your history and physical.


  • Fold your arms over your chest as this displays an aggressive posture
  • Ask why the patient did not come in earlier
  • Say ‘I guess’
  • Repeatedly ask ‘why’
  • Use the words ‘never’ or ‘always’
  • Ignore elephants in the room
  • Dismiss their concerns without explanation

The Difficult Patient

When engaging difficult patients in the emergency department, understanding the situation and the drivers for the patient may help to better navigate the communication challenges that are present.  A difficult patient encounter in the emergency department can often be frustrating for both the physician and the patient. These patients often present with chronic medical issues that are exacerbated by social disparities [13-14]. These are just a few examples of types of patients that one may encounter in the emergency department:

Angry Patient

Don’t ignore that a patient may be angry or upset. Their frustration is often related to delays, expectations, or care concerns. Try to explore this by asking neutral and non-confrontational questions.  If possible, identify and acknowledge their dominant underlying emotion.  Statements as simple as “It seems like you’re frustrated” or “I suspect we’re not meeting your expectations today” can lead to meaningful dialogue when a patient feels acknowledged. A simple but genuine apology can completely change the end of an encounter, such as apologizing for a long wait or for not being able to do more in our limited capacity in the ED.

Manipulative Patient

While these patients may clearly have secondary gain, their medical complaints are often still legitimate. Approach these patients with an open mind and differential, but be prepared to say “no” to requests that are not clinically indicated. When in doubt, give patients the benefit of the doubt rather than prematurely dismissing a legitimate need.

Frequent Fliers / High Utilizers

High recidivism may be frustrating, but it is important to understand that there may be an underlying reason for frequent ED visits. Socioeconomic factors resulting in poor access to care are common reasons. Maintaining familiarity with available resources (e.g. social workers, clinical support nursing) can make a tremendous difference.

Combative, Agitated, or Intoxicated Patient

It is most important to keep both the patient and the staff (including yourself) safe. Redirecting the patient and emphasizing the importance of caring for them medically may help to calm the situation. It is remarkably easy to inadvertently escalate an agitated patient’s behavior. Maintain firm boundaries while maintaining a calm, reserved demeanor. Psychopharmacological intervention may be necessary at times.

In difficult encounters, there are times when an impasse is reached and it is clear that the goals of the patient will not be met. Even if your care is medically appropriate and effort has been made to respect the patient’s autonomy, these scenarios are sometimes unavoidable. In such situations, it is important to emphasize that you are acting in what you feel to be the patient’s best interest. If appropriate, apologize for their frustrations or any misunderstanding. Give the patient time to express themselves, but also practice identifying when it is time to give the patient space.

For a deeper dive into effective patient communication related to managing difficult patients, listen to Episode 51: Effective Patient Communication – Managing Difficult Patients by Anton Helman.

The Culturally-Discordant Encounter

The emergency department is a nexus not just for all members of a community, but for anyone in the area needing assistance. Physicians in the emergency department can expect to encounter a diverse patient population, regardless of physical location. Healthcare professionals will therefore invariably encounter those of cultural backgrounds that differ from their own. These cultural backgrounds include race, religion, and nationality, among many others. While an entire chapter could be dedicated to communication in this setting, here are a few key points to form a foundation.

1. Minimize any language barrier

Making efforts to minimize a language barrier is often easier said than done. For any encounter in which the primary languages of the patient and physician are not the same, an interpreter should be offered whenever possible. It can be immensely tempting to over-estimate a patient’s fluency in a language to avoid having to use a language interpreter. However, it is well-demonstrated that language barriers are associated with a variety of negative impacts on patient care including decreased diagnostic confidence, increased ancillary testing, decreased patient satisfaction, and delays in analgesia [15-17]. Family members should not be used as interpreters whenever possible. They can have their own agendas and biases, as well as variable health literacy.

2. Be mindful of one’s own biases

It is an unfortunate truth that implicit biases exist in every person. Healthcare professionals should be mindful of the poorer communication and health outcomes minority races tend to receive [18,19]. Employing a genuine, empathic style of communication is an excellent foundation for mitigating one’s biases.

3. Familiarize yourself with differing cultural norms

There are far too many cultural norms for any one person to know. If there are specific communities of differing cultural backgrounds in your area, make an effort to learn differences in verbal and non-verbal cues. If unsure, it is generally prudent to “be yourself” and exhibit calm, deliberate mannerisms.

The Handoff

Communication between providers and specifically patient care transitions present one of the well-known challenges in patient care and errors in care management. This handoff communication, often perceived as the ‘gray zone’, has been characterized by ambiguity about patient medical condition, treatment and disposition [20]. Communication errors, particularly related to patient hand-offs, account for nearly 35% of ED related care errors.  Establishing a standardized process to ensure quality and clarity of transitions in care are essential.  One such example is the I-CAN format, which is specifically focused on the ED patient population.

I - Introduction

Briefly describe what brought the patient into the emergency department today. For example: Patient is a 53 yo male with past medical history of COPD who presents today with productive cough, wheezing and shortness of breath.

C - Critical Content & Interventions Performed

Relate information that helps the receiving provider understand the ED course. For example: On initial evaluation the patient was unable to speak in full sentences and O2 saturation was 88% on room air. We started him on NIPPV and provided nebulizer treatments and IV steroids.

A - Active Issues

Provide an overview of the patient’s current condition. For example: Patient improved after an hour of NIPPV and was transitioned to high flow nasal cannula with O2 saturation at 93%. We are currently attempting to wean O2 requirements as tolerated.

N - Next Steps & Anticipated Disposition

Describe to the receiving provider what will need to be followed up and anticipated disposition of the patient. For example: The patient will need to be admitted for a COPD exacerbation with a new O2 requirement. He can go to a floor bed if he remains stable on nasal cannula.

While many examples for a unified handoff exist, identifying a defined approach and establishing the expectation for routine use, especially when integrated into the electronic health record at transitions of care, ensure improvement with patient care, quality and throughput [20,21]. If the patient and family are involved with this handoff, not only will they understand care expectations, but better understand issues with delays, next steps, and care updates.


Most agree that providing patient care in the ED poses many challenges. The situations within which we work can present a stressful, rapid environment where it may feel as though we have too little time for effective patient communication, patient-centered care or opportunity to establish a great patient experience. However, it is also evident that improved communication between the care team and patients not only improves the care experience but also improves patient care outcomes. Quality communication improves patient outcomes, compliance and satisfaction – not to mention job and team satisfaction.

While many techniques exist to improve ED communication, establishing a culture in the ED to habitually adapt these practices is essential. The ED is indeed an environment unlike any other in medicine, where a unique team of individuals work in varying degrees of chaos with limited available information working together to address the medical conditions of those presenting to the department. Doing so with effective communication can make a difference.


Nicholas MACKIN

Nicholas MACKIN

Nicholas Mackin, MD is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem, NC, USA.



Bret Nicks, MD, MHA is an emergency physician that embraces the breadth of our specialty. He is a Professor and Executive Vice Chair of Emergency Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He is the past president of the North Carolina College of Emergency Medicine. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of the award-winning Wake Forest Baptist Davie Medical Center. Dr. Nicks served as the founding Associate Dean for the Wake Forest Office of Global Health. He has lived, practiced, and led in many resource austere locations globally, although calls the academic tertiary care emergency department his home. He is passionate about, consults and lectures on the interface of clinical quality, leadership and team culture – and is dedicated to developing EM leaders for the future of our specialty and the transformation of healthcare. He loves anything outdoors, enjoys blogging on various life and leadership topics;, and recently published his first book.

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Please replace “iEM Education Project Team” below with the author(s) surname and initials.

Cite this article as: iEM Education Project Team, "Communication and Interpersonal Interactions (2023)," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, May 1, 2023,, date accessed: December 2, 2023


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Reviewed By

Arif Alper Cevik, MD, FEMAT, FIFEM

Arif Alper Cevik, MD, FEMAT, FIFEM

Prof Cevik is an Emergency Medicine academician at United Arab Emirates University, interested in international emergency medicine, emergency medicine education, medical education, point of care ultrasound and trauma. He is the founder and director of the International Emergency Medicine Education Project –, vice-chair of the International Federation for Emergency Medicine (IFEM) core curriculum and education committee and board member of the Asian Society for Emergency Medicine and Emirati Board of Emergency Medicine.