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Communication Will Enhance the Doctor-Patient Relationship


Likeability, avoiding jargon, and showing empathy are three strategies that can improve patient relations.

These days, patients expect an excellent customer experience. As consumers of medical care, they do their homework and come in to their doctor’s office having read the Yelp and Healthgrades reviews. They also come in with ideas about treatment options and want to be included in the decision making - and their doctors have to expect and welcome being “interviewed.” Overall, patients are looking for a partner who listens and advocates for them.

Here are several communication strategies to enhance the patient/customer experience. The underlying theory is that an enhanced experience will lead to more positive outcomes, fewer return visits, more compliance and better overall satisfaction.

Likeability Is Key 

It is no longer acceptable for a doctor to be the best in their field - but have a lousy bedside manner. Likeability triggers a subconscious reaction that drives feelings of trust in patients and a smile goes a long way.

Speak slowly and begin with open-ended questions such as, “How can we work together to accomplish your goals?” Patients are anxious, concerned, and are looking for someone who they feel cares about them as a person. Communicate the fact that you have time for them - even when you may not.

Do you go right to the chart or right to the patient? After the visit, ask yourself, “Have I covered everything in a way that makes sense?” If they like you and trust you and there is a poor outcome, they will probably still like you and trust you afterwards. Consider, however, that the opposite reaction has serious implications.

Don’t fling open the door or appear rushed at the beginning of the consultation. Have a seat, because when physicians sit down, eye contact is improved and patients are happier. It affects the balance of power when your body language is open and patients feel more connected to you. Consider leaving your lab coat open so your street clothes show. Do you look stressed or relaxed? Rushed or patient? Distant or engaged? What’s the ratio between your eye contact with the patient and looking at your screen or writing notes?

Avoid Jargon 

If a patient doesn’t understand the terminology you are using, it will trigger fear and distrust, leading to less compliance, them tuning out, and misunderstanding. Talk in simple language and check for understanding. Speak in a relatable voice and give patients index cards to write down any questions they may be too timid or confused to ask at that moment.

“Tell me more” is a great way to encourage the patient to keep talking and reassure them you have the time to listen. Ask the patient to repeat back what they heard regarding outcomes, options, follow-up and treatment plans. The meaning of a communication is how it is received, not how it was intended.

Show Empathy

It’s a healthy mindset for doctors to view every patient as a customer. Get into their shoes and see the situation from their perspective. Before entering the examination room, remember that they are scared, intimidated, anxious, and probably feeling vulnerable. Shared vulnerability goes a long way toward leveling the playing field. What are some ways that you can reveal parts of yourself to connect at a deeper level? How do you show your humanity? 

Using compassionate, non-judgmental language and tone is key to building a relationship and working toward common goals. For example, questions about smoking, drinking and diet can either shut a patient down or inspire them to tell you the truth, depending on how you ask. Are the questions perceived as a conversation or an interrogation? Meet the patient where they are: Accept them through your manner and tone before you ask them to consider changing their behavior. Do you have a conversational tone - i.e., “a guide on the side” - or do you come across more as “the sage on the stage?" 

An effective strategy for reducing anxiety is to bring up common concerns before they surface. If a patient has a fear or concern they do not voice, it will be difficult for them to hear what you are saying. Scratching the itch up front allows for better dialogue and compliance.

Tell them, “You may be thinking the recovery takes months” or “It’s common at this stage to wonder…” Acknowledge they may have a lot of questions and are overwhelmed by all of the information you’ve given them. Allow them to feel part of a group that has felt the same way they do. It’s useful to say, “I understand how you feel and others have felt the same way. Let me tell you what they found out that might be useful to you.”

Thinking of the patient as a valued client - and having them think of you as a trusted advisor -will go a long way toward reaching the long-term positive outcomes we all look to achieve.

Ronni Burns is a consultant, coach and professor of communications. She has worked with executives in all industries delivering workshops and seminars on effective presentations and management communication. She has been a speaker at Anne Arundel Medical Center, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and BJ Nursing Homes. Formerly, she worked at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania as a medical social worker. Her clients include GE, Marriott, Houston Biotech and many of the leading financial services companies. She is grateful to all of the doctors and medical staff who have brilliantly accompanied her through several medical trials and tribulations. Her website is ronniburns.com.

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