The Optimized Doctor

Mastering mask communicating


Masks, it seems, are effective at blocking the transmission of coronavirus. They’re also pretty good at stultifying consonants. For those specialties not accustomed to wearing a mask all day, it’s frustrating: How many times have you had to repeat yourself today? Or ask your patient to say something again? (Ain’t no one got time to repeat a third time how to do that prednisone taper). Worse, we’re losing important nonverbal cues that help us connect with our patients. How can we be understood when our faces are covered and 6 feet away?

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Masks muffle both verbal and nonverbal communication. For soft-spoken or high-pitched speakers, the verbal effect is significant. In particular, masks make hearing consonants more difficult. They can make the “sh,” “th,” “f,” and “s” sounds difficult to distinguish. Typically, we’d use context and lip reading to boost the signal, but this fix is blocked (and the clear mouth-window masks are kinda creepy).

Masks also prevent us from seeing facial microexpressions, critical information when you are trying to connect with someone or to build trust. A randomized controlled trial published in 2013 indeed showed that doctors wearing a mask were perceived as less empathetic and had diminished relational continuity with patients as compared to doctors not wearing a mask. There are a few things we can do to help.

Speak more loudly is obvious advice. Loud talking has limitations though, as it can feel rude, and it blunts inflections, which add richness and emotion. (Shouting “THIS WILL ONLY HURT A LITTLE” seems a mixed message). More important than the volume is your choice of words. Try to use simple terms and short sentences. Pause between points. Hit your consonants harder.

It’s also important that you have their full attention and are giving yours. As much as possible, try to align squared up with patients. Facing your computer exacerbates the problem. Look them in their eyes and be sure they are connected with you before any complex or difficult conversations. Hearing-impaired patients are now sometimes leaving out their aids because it’s too uncomfortable to wear them with their mask. You might ask them to put them back in. Check in with patients and repeat back what you heard them say. This can help with clarity and with connecting. Use your face more: if you’ve ever acted on stage, this would be your on-stage face. Exaggerate your expressions so it’s a little easier for them to read you.

Lastly, there are apps such as Ava or Google Live Translator, which can transcribe your speech real time. You could then share your screen with the patient so they can read exactly what you’ve said.

Some of us are natural communicators. Even if you are not, you can mitigate some of our current challenges. I’ll admit, it’s been a bit easier for me than for others. Between my prominent eyebrows and Italian-American upbringing, I can express my way through pretty much any face covering. If you’d like to learn how to use your hands better, then just watch this little girl:

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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