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Six Keys to Effective Physician-Patient Interactions


Taking time to build quality interactions with your patients can actually save you time, and help you become a more effective physician.

What are the most significant predictors of patient satisfaction with their physicians? If you think they are technical skills and interventions (such as medical interventions, tests, and examinations), you are wrong.

It turns out that what matters most to patients is the quality of their conversations with their doctors - specifically, patients care about:

• Being listened to, and having their expectations met;

• Being involved in decisions about their healthcare;

• Receiving clear explanations about their medical status and treatment; and

• Being treated courteously and respectfully.

This is good news because they are all factors that you, the physician, can to a large extent control. And what it really says is that patients want to have quality interactions with a healthcare provider who cares about them.

Taking the time to communicate clearly, to listen intently, to understand each patient's individuality, and to respond compassionately goes a long way toward not only improving patient satisfaction, but also improving outcomes. Patients are much more likely to listen to and understand medical advice when they themselves feel listened to and cared about.

When patients are facing a difficult medical situation (for example, a new diagnosis, discomfort, or an uncertain outcome), they are in a threat state - their emotions get triggered, their limbic system gets activated, and their prefrontal cortex starts to deactivate. This results in people not being able to think as clearly, listen well, or appreciate a wider perspective.

With all this in mind, here are six strategies to ensure the most effective physician-patient conversations take place in your practice.

• Remember: no two people are the same. Don't assume you know how your patients feel and what they care about. Ask them.

• Listen to understand, not to respond. Be genuinely curious about what your patients say, what they ask about, and what they understand about their medical situation.

• Minimize your patient's sense of threat. There are five factors to consider in helping people feel safe.

1. Predictability - let patients know what to expect.

2. Choice - whenever possible, involve patients in decision making about their medical care.

3. Fairness - often, patients feel it just isn't fair that they got sick. Help patients know that you will do everything you can to help them through their situations.

4. Acceptance and connection - your patients want to feel that you care about them. Treat them with compassion, respect, and courtesy.

5. Trust - be honest, do what you say you are going to do, and be willing to tell patients when you don't know something.

• Acknowledge your patient's emotions. Ask open-ended questions about how he sees his situation ("What do you understand about what we have discussed today?"), and let him know you are his partner in health.

• Find out what your patient cares aboutand needs from you. ("How can I be most helpful to you in this situation?"). Let patients know what they can expect as it relates to their diagnosis, treatment, and interactions with you, their doctor.

• Avoid responding defensively to a patient. If your patient gets upset, try to understand what he is concerned about and acknowledge his concerns. Remember, this is a scary time for patients and they are more likely to respond emotionally.

Taking time to build quality interactions with your patients can actually save you time. Both you and your patients will be happier and healthier for it.

Catherine Hambley, PhD,is an organizational psychologist who leverages brain science to promote effectiveness and positive change in her work with organizations, teams, and leaders. In addition to her extensive background in healthcare, she has worked across a wide array of industries, from Fortune 100 companies to non-profit organizations. She may be reached at or

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