How to talk to doctors – a guide for effective communication


  • K. Curtis rn, bn, grad dip crit care, msnurs (Hons), phd,

    Corresponding author
    1. Clinical Nurse Consultant, Trauma, St George Hospital, Sydney
    2. Clinical Associate Professor, Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney, Sydney
    3. Conjoint Associate Professor, St George Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney
    4. Honorary Professorial Fellow, The George Institute for Global Health, Sydney
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  • A. Tzannes mbbs, fracem,

    1. Emergency Physician, St George Hospital, Emergency Department, Sydney
    2. Retrieval Physician, Sydney Aeromedical Retrieval Service, Sydney, Australia
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  • T. Rudge rn, rmhn(nsw), ba, phd

    1. Professor
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Kate Curtis, Trauma Service, St George Hospital, Gray St, Kogarah, NSW, 2217, Australia; Tel: +612 9113 2686; Fax: +612 9113 3974; E-mail:


Curtis K., Tzannes A. & Rudge T. (2011) How to talk to doctors – a guide for effective communication. International Nursing Review58, 13–20

Background:  Nurses and doctors undertake segregated and distinct preparation for clinical practice, yet are expected to communicate effectively with each other in the workplace. Most healthcare facilities have policies relating to written communication, but guidelines for verbal communication, which is used most in times of uncertainty and urgency, are generally less regulated. Poor communication and communication overload are shown to have a direct correlation with patient outcomes, adverse events and stressors among healthcare professionals. We suggest a guide for more effective verbal communication between nurses and doctors.

Methods:  We perform an integrated review of the extensive literature that identifies specific problems that contribute to ineffective communication between a doctor and nurse. We discuss these in five themes in the modern clinical context including intensification of workload, workforce mobility, differing perceptions, language use and heuristics. To combat these, we provide a four point practical guide to arm the nurse clinician with effective tools to ensure a satisfactory exchange of information in the context of patient advocacy.

Conclusions:  The guide assists in overcoming the discussed barriers by creating a premise for fostering communication, understanding each clinician's information needs in a mutually respectful manner, especially in the context of uncertainty. We recommend that a shared mental model regarding communication in health be adopted at tertiary institutions offering pre-registration nursing and medical training and techniques and be woven into respective curriculum design.