Doctor with a mask: Enhancing communication and empathy


Delivering a goodbye monologue to an elderly patient, I said: “Tomorrow, my colleague Dr. XYZ, who is an excellent physician, will be here in my place, and I will leave a detailed sign out for them.” I was on the last day of a 7-day-long block on hospital medicine service. Typically, when I say goodbye, some patients respond “thank you, enjoy your time,” some don’t care, and some show disappointment at the transition. This patient became uneasy, choking back tears, and said: “But, I don’t want a new doctor. You know me well. ... They don’t even allow my family in the hospital.”

Dr. Taru Saigal

That expression of anxiety, of having to build rapport with a new provider, concerns about continuity of care, and missing support of family members were not alien to me. As I instinctively took a step toward him to offer a comforting hug, an unsolicited voice in my head said, “social distancing.” I steered back, handing him a box of tissues. I continued: “You have come a long way, and things are looking good from here,” providing more details before I left the room. There was a change in my practice that week. I didn’t shake hands with my patients; I didn’t sit on any unassigned chair; I had no family members in the room asking me questions or supporting my patients. I was trying to show empathy or a smile behind a mask and protective eyewear. The business card with photograph had become more critical than ever for patients to “see” their doctor.

Moving from room to room and examining patients, it felt like the coronavirus was changing the practice of medicine beyond concerns of virus transmission, losing a patient, or putting in extra hours. I realized I was missing so-called “nonverbal communication” amid social distancing: facial expressions, social touch, and the support of family or friends to motivate or destress patients. With no visitors and curbed health care staff entries into patient’s rooms, social distancing was amounting to social isolation. My protective gear and social distancing seemed to be reducing my perceived empathy with patients, and the ability to build a good patient-physician relationship.

Amid alarms, beeps, and buzzes, patients were not only missing their families but also the familiar faces of their physicians. I needed to raise my game while embracing the “new normal” of health care. Cut to the next 13 patients: I paid more attention to voice, tone, and posture. I called patient families from the bedside instead of the office. I translated my emotions with words, loud and clear, replacing “your renal function looks better” (said without a smile) with “I am happy to see your renal function better.”

Through years of practice, I felt prepared to deal with feelings of denial, grief, anxiety, and much more, but the emotions arising as a result of this pandemic were unique. “I knew my mother was old, and this day would come,” said one of the inconsolable family members of a critically ill patient. “However, I wished to be at her side that day, not like this.” I spend my days listening to patient and family concerns about unemployment with quarantine, fears of spreading the disease to loved ones, and the possibility of medications not working.

After a long day, I went back to that first elderly patient to see if he was comfortable with the transition of care. I did a video conference with his daughter, and repeated my goodbyes. The patient smiled and said: “Doc, you deserve a break.” That day I learned about the challenges of good clinical rounding in coronavirus times, and how to overcome them. For “millennial” physicians, it is our first pandemic, and we are learning from it every day.

Driving home through empty streets, I concluded that my answers to the clinical questions asked by patients and families lean heavily on ever-changing data, and the treatments offered have yet to prove their mettle. As a result, I will continue to focus as much on the time-tested fundamentals of clinical practice: communication and empathy. I cannot allow the social distancing and the mask to hide my compassion, or take away from patient satisfaction. Shifting gears, I turned on my car radio, using music to reset my mind before attending to my now-homeschooling kids.

Dr. Saigal is a hospitalist and clinical assistant professor of medicine in the division of hospital medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus.


1. Wong CK et al. Effect of facemasks on empathy and relational continuity: A randomised controlled trial in primary care. BMC Fam Pract. 2013;14:200.

2. Little P et al. Randomised controlled trial of a brief intervention targeting predominantly nonverbal communication in general practice consultations. Br J Gen Pract. 2015;65(635):e351-6.

3. Varghese A. A doctor’s touch. TEDGlobal 2011. 2011 Jul.

Recommended Reading

COVID-19: Addressing the mental health needs of clinicians
The Hospitalist
Out-of-hospital cardiac arrests soar during COVID-19 in Italy
The Hospitalist
Primary care physicians reshuffle their work, lives in a pandemic
The Hospitalist
CMS hikes telephone visit payments during pandemic
The Hospitalist
FDA authorizes emergency use of remdesivir for COVID-19
The Hospitalist
COVID-19: To have and to hold ... in quarantine
The Hospitalist
COVID-19: Social distancing with young children
The Hospitalist
Hydroxychloroquine-triggered QTc-interval prolongations mount in COVID-19 patients
The Hospitalist
FDA tightens requirements for COVID-19 antibody tests
The Hospitalist
Case reports illustrate heterogeneity of skin manifestations in COVID patients
The Hospitalist
   Comments ()