The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Opinion | UI’s Unit Partner Program can help develop essential healthcare soft skills in students

The University of Iowa’s Unit Partner Program is allowing students to gain hands-on experience in a hospital setup by allowing them to intertwine their technical skills with soft skills such as communication, empathy, and patience. The incorporation of these skills can improve patient care and satisfaction.
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When considering what constitutes a satisfactory hospital visit, one must incorporate the soft skills of medical professionals as well as their technical abilities. While the vitals meticulously taken before the appointment are important, so is the patience with which doctors and medical staff listen to our concerns.

From the perspective of a patient, a satisfactory hospital visit may equally emphasize a doctor’s technical skills as well as their ability to understand non-verbal cues. The University of Iowa’s new unit partner program for students can help achieve this.

Despite their importance in healthcare, “soft skills” are not taught in conventional medicine courses. According to a 2023 study on the importance of soft skills in health sciences students published by the National Library of Medicine, this can be attributed to the fact that technical skills have metrics for the measurement of proficiency. Comparatively, the circumstantial nature of soft skills often acts as a barrier to their incorporation into traditional medical curricula.

According to the Greater Good Science Center, when a doctor communicates with and validates a patient’s health problems, they promote healing by removing obstacles like miscommunication and misdiagnosis.

One cardiologist, cited in a 2017 article from the National Library of Medicine, explored this topic through a first-person lens. She described her diagnosis of breast cancer and highlighted the significance of communication. She said a doctor’s verbal reassurance and thorough review of the patient’s medical records can reduce the patient’s anxiety and build trust with their doctor.

According to BMC Health Services Research, the success of a healthcare setting such as hospitals and clinics, is measured through “patient satisfaction,” which determines whether the patient would return to the same setting in the case of subsequent medical problems. This is where soft skills like communication, understanding of diverse cultural backgrounds, and empathy enter the picture.

Initiated in 2022, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ unit partner program aims to develop these soft skills by exposing students to an actual hospital setup. In an email to The Daily Iowan, Dan Lose, a founding member of the program and nursing director at UIHC, wrote that students benefit from exposure to hospital operations and communicating with patients under the guidance of nursing leaders.

Lose wrote that the program focuses on empathetic communication.

“The healthcare delivery system is complex, and patients/families are often suffering when they interact with our staff,” Lose wrote. “Effective communication from healthcare professionals is essential to supporting our patients and family members.”

Although they should be acquired and practiced by all practicing healthcare workers, soft skills are especially important for professionals who work in palliative and hospice care because they can help communicate devastating news to families and patients. According to a 2021 paper published by the National Library of Medicine, “empathetic communication” promotes healthier coping mechanisms by omitting negative consequences such as “denial”.

However, empathy must also be balanced with objectivity. One pediatrician’s experience, cited by the National Library of Medicine, highlights the importance of transparency with patients and families.

The pediatrician describes that when they objectively recommended ways to improve parenting styles to further manage behavioral problems in pediatric patients. They were able to help patients by educating their parents on the causes of the problems, which led to the effective administration of the treatment.

An interdisciplinary approach can help develop soft skills in the early stages of education. This can involve the integration of psychology and sociology courses alongside traditional medical curriculums, which can develop emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and the presence of different biases in various cultural contexts.

A 2019 article published by The Medical Teacher journal suggests a reflective, patient-centric approach to teaching soft skills. This includes self and group reflection on the patient’s psychological and behavioral cues after a “clinical vignette,” or case report, and its subsequent integration into lectures and practice.

Therefore, the incorporation of soft skills at an early stage in medical learning, including both empathy and objectivity, may significantly improve patient experiences by creating a compassionate and caring environment for both patients and families.



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About the Contributor
Shelley Mishra
Shelley Mishra, Opinions Columnist
Shelley Mishra is a first-year student at the University of Iowa, pursuing her degree in Neuroscience (Hons.).