How a Practice Effectively Communicates with Patients

June 24, 2011

Let's face it folks, if we cannot effectively communicate with our patients, the years and years of reading, studying, and residency training is all for nothing.

Our practice is constantly striving to meet and exceed our patients' expectations on a daily basis. One aspect of our care that patients continuously rave about is the communication they receive from our office. 

Let's face it folks, if we cannot effectively communicate with our patients, the years and years of reading, studying, residency training, etc. is all for nothing. For new patient visits to our office, I routinely poll them as to why they decided to change the location for their care. I would say that nine out of 10 patients say that their last doctor(s) just did not give them the opportunity to ask questions, did not contact them regarding test results, and so on.

There is no better way to effectively communicate with your patients than the traditional face-to-face office visit. This is my preferred method for several reasons. First, your time is valuable: The time that your office staff spends on prior authorizations, refill requests, and referrals is valuable to you because you must pay for that. At present, this is the only way that physicians can be fairly compensated for the time spent with the patient. Of course, some practices utilize virtual visits or online visits, but the reimbursement guidelines are not uniform across the range of payers.

Second, when you inform patients of test results and other information while they sit in front of you, this gives them the opportunity to ask questions and discuss other concerns. Do you find it difficult to keep the office visit structured and efficient? I routinely enter the exam room and, after greeting the patient with a hello and a handshake, always ask them if they have any specific questions or concerns for me before I start with my questions. This has greatly improved my office visit efficiency and at the same time allows patients to feel as if they are never neglected.

Of course, not all patients can come to the office each and every time you need to contact them. My next preferred method is to utilize our EHR system's online patient portal. The portal allows me to post a test result along with my comments and interpretation plus instructions for patients. Once a patient reviews the message, a “read” receipt is generated and documented in the patient's medical record. Less than five percent of the messages generated by me produce ongoing messaging with the patient. This message delivery is secure and HIPAA compliant and the patients absolutely love it. At present, my practice is the only one in our small town that utilizes an EHR system. I try to encourage each patient to sign up for the portal if possible. For those patients that are not computer literate, I offer the option to use a family member or another designated person to read online correspondence on their behalf. This method has been especially helpful for my elderly patients with family members that live out of town. The family members are kept up to date and instructions are passed on to the patient with no problem. The approval rate for this method has been exceptionally high.

Another option for communication is to send the patient a letter in the mail. This letter can be scanned into the patient's chart and documented appropriately. The medical practice has the option of sending a certified letter and can also ask for a “received” receipt. This provides the documentation that the patient actually picked up the letter (but does not guarantee that he or she actually read it). Of course, the obvious drawbacks to this method are the time that is required to complete the process and the potentially expensive cost of this process.

My least preferred method of communication is using the telephone. The reason I do not care for phone calls is that you can never guarantee that the patient will be available to receive the call, the number might be disconnected, maybe the wrong number was listed …I could go on and on. I do not like to leave messages on an answering machine for the obvious security matter. Sending a message via phone usually requires that the physician generate a message and then pass it off to either a nurse or clerical staff member to complete. Patients value the ease of a phone call, however the time spent in generating the message, documenting the call, and generating a potential reply message to the physician (for yet another phone call) can be very cumbersome and time consuming. When my patients start playing phone tag with the staff, I will simply ask them to schedule an appointment for discussion.

However you choose to communicate with your patients, you must utilize a method that will allow you to pass along your instructions clearly and without confusion to your patients.

Documentation of any patient contact is absolutely vital. Taking a step back to see your practice through your patients’ eyes will allow you to choose the most effective method for each patient. You will find that your patients will truly appreciate your efforts.

Learn more about J. Scott Litton, Jr., and our other contributing bloggers here.