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Three skills doctors need today

Why today’s physicians should be studying communication, coaching and teamwork 

In the high-pressure world where physicians practice, the ability to coach, communicate and collaborate well with team members can actually make a life-or-death difference for a patient. Moreover, those skills unquestionably help organizations function. So why don’t we teach them to physicians?

The answer has everything to do with tradition. It’s understood that medical students need thousands of hours of training and practice to master the skills they need to care for patients. No one would ever suggest that cardiology, for example, is an inherent personality trait. But that is exactly how people are taught to think of leadership and its component characteristics: people are born with them.

Some probably are. But consider the process we put people who want to be physicians through: they have to compete to get the marks for medical school, they compete to do well in medical school, they compete to get a good residency, and they compete to get hired at the hospital where they want to work. At that point, they’re expected to collaborate and lead teams. 

Very little of their experience or education will have taught them the kind of skills they will need to do that. As one article in the Harvard Business Review put it, physicians are used to interacting with patients, where they’re in charge and trained to keep their emotions out of it. “Their work experience doesn’t adequately prepare them for managing complicated workplace relationships and being seen as an authentic leader.”

Improving communication between patients and physicians has been a priority for medical schools in recent years, because of its importance in good care. However, it takes an entire care team to look after someone and effective communication among team members is essential to do that well, as this article from the Journal of the American College of Surgeons shows. 

Because physicians are often team leaders, coaching is also an important skill for them to develop. A Harvard Business Review article points out many managers tend to act as consultants rather than coaches―that is, they offer advice or solutions. True coaching is helping a team member maximize their potential, not telling them what to do. It involves listening, giving feedback, helping someone recognize their skills and develop their own solution. Just as good physicians counsel patients on the paths to choose for health, they will also develop the skills they need to help colleagues use their skills to create solutions for patients.

Whether one’s priority is improving physician-patient relationships or peer-to-peer, it’s clear that improving your communication, coaching and team-building skills are key. It’s likely that most people agree that in today’s complex environments, all of us appreciate being heard and consulted. It certainly makes sense that medical education and health care organizations do everything they can to encourage physicians to excel in these areas.


This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about physician-led innovation? Please connect with us at