The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

By Prof. Deepa Sethi

One fine morning three years ago, I visited a multi-specialty hospital in my city for a regular appointment for the annual complete health check up. While waiting in the hospital lounge, I observed that some consultants’ OPD was heavily crowded while a few others had only two-three patients waiting. Out of curiosity, I started interacting with the bystanders and the patients. An informal interaction brought out astonishing facts. One person stated that the doctor listens to them and has warm expression on his face so he doesn’t mind waiting for this doctor. Another patient said that the doctor she is waiting for, maintains eye contact with her throughout the consultation, comforts her with her touch and smiles occasionally which gives her strength no matter how much she is suffering. These couple of interactions opened another arena in the concept, which I had been exploring in the past: do doctors need soft skills?

The insight resulted in a research project titled “Nonverbal Communication in Doctor-Patient Interaction: An Exploratory Study of Three Major Cities of Kerala (India).” This was an attempt to explore if the doctors also accepted the importance of soft skills in their profession. Several recommendations were made for enhancing this aspect of doctor-patient interaction and the research findings were published in a peer-reviewed refereed journal. The study revealed that doctors do need formal training in communication to facilitate quicker patient recovery, and shortlisted five soft skills essential for doctors: eye contact to convey empathy, effective listening, a smile to soothe nerves, a soft tone, and adherence to time. The suggestions also found place in The Times of India dated August 13, 2015, and can be found in the following link:

http://health.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/hospitals/doctors-poor-soft-skills-like-no-eye-contact-hit-ties-with-patients/48463864

Then I felt the need of exploring the other side of the story as well and with patients as the respondents this time, came up with a study, which highlighted similar findings. My study conducted among 250 patients from hospitals across the country found that patient compliance with a treatment depends largely upon their considering the doctors as empathetic. This research titled “Nonverbal Communication in Doctor-Patient Interaction: Does it really matter? – A Case of India” was presented at the esteemed medical conference ‘Criticare 2016’ at Agra on February 5-7.

In view of the findings, I came up with a programme design for honing the soft skills of doctors and hospital administrators. To participate, one may enroll at the IIM Kozhikode website and attend the programme as per the given schedule. The other option is customization of this programme based on hospital requirement and delivering it at the client (hospital/nursing home) location. The need of the contents was covered in The Times of India dated May 22, 2016. The detailed article can be read here:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/From-August-doctors-to-be-trained-in-soft-skills/articleshow/52392588.cms

One might be excellent in one’s domain and expertise; one needs to remember that soft skills are vital to success. My training module in soft skills is customized for doctors, and hospital administrators. In addition, I strongly feel that people working in any profession: be it legal, IT, service, hospitality, manufacturing, consulting etc. can excel by fine-tuning their soft skills.

Prof. Deepa Sethi is Associate Professor of Humanities & Liberal Arts in Management at IIM Kozhikode

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2 thoughts on “The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

  1. Great. Interesting illustration of how a research leads to another inquiry and eventually an intervention that makes an impact on the society. Good luck with your training program. I am sure you would not stop here and have another study in mind already to examine the extent to which the training in soft skills has been effective in improving the doctors’ (other public service professionals’) approach may be followed by another examining if that has an impact on how patients’ (and/or public’s) quality of life.

  2. Very interesting area of research and training. I remember my GP in the UK opening the door for patients to walk in and then again getting up to open the door on their way out. And every illness we discussed would result in a sympathetic “do not worry, even I (or my wife in some cases) have suffered from this”. Made us go back again and again to him!

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