Confucius and the 21st century doctor

ConfuciusWith Hippocrates considered as the Father of Modern Medicine, the influence of the ancients on the 21st century doctor is very clear.  So what about the teachings of Confucius?  Though revered by many, the power of the great philosopher’s teaching is often diluted by the world of throw away fortune cookie wisdom.  A great deal can be gained however from taking time to consider his numerous quotations.  Let’s take for example, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”  Does this have any relevance to today’s medical practise?

Benjamin Franklin paraphrased Confucius’ words as “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I will learn.”  The approach of involvement to support learning is a concept which we explore during our Teach the Teacher courses at Oxford Medical Training.  It is also a principle which can have great benefits for improving patient communication.

There are three key reasons for a patient to be ‘non-compliant’ with their doctor’s advice:

  • They do not understand what they are supposed to do
  • They know what to do but choose not to
  • They know what to do but are unable to act on the advice

Although the communication approach has to be suitably adjusted for each case, patient education is at the centre of both avoiding and correcting compliance issues.  “Involve me and I will learn,” is clearly relevant.  The big challenge is how?

Howard Gardner’s model of Multiple Intelligences can prove useful here.  His defined seven distinct cognitive processes and explained that we all have our own preferences.  We function and learning in different ways.  His principles can be applied to improving patient communication as successfully as they are to numerous training situations.  Here is a list of Learning Preferences based on his model with a few examples of their application to patient communication:

  • Linguistic:  Verbal explanations, spoken or written; what words mean
  • Logical-Mathematical:  Cause and effect; sequences; patterns; logic and numbers
  • Visual-Spatial:  Seeing; pictures; diagrams; models; visual descriptions
  • Musical-Rhythmic:  Repetition; rhyming mnemonics; rhythmic phrases
  • Bodily-Kinaesthetic:  Doing; feeling; touching; holding; practicing
  • Interpersonal:  Discussion with others; asking questions; different people
  • Intrapersonal:  Time to reflect; diaries and logs; setting personal goals

You may be able to recognise your own set of preferences from the list.  It’s very easy to fall into the habit of communicating with over-reliance upon our personal preferences, whereas the most effective approach is to use as many methods from all styles with everyone.

Consider how you currently connect with these learning preferences in your daily practise.  What do you do well and what approaches could you use more?


Oxford Medical Training is the UK’s leading provider of high quality career development for doctors of all levels.  We specialise in advancing leadership, management, communication and teaching skills in the medical environment.  Our new Advanced Patient Communication Skills Course for Doctors is now available for bookings.