Watching for Cues From Your Patients

March 11, 2010
Judy Capko

As a busy physician your focus is primarily on the medical needs of your patients.

As a busy physician your focus is primarily on the medical needs of your patients. You want to provide them the best care, but your time is limited. Unfortunately, your patients also have emotional concerns that need tending to. If you can spend a few moments to assess body language and unspoken communication, the outcome will be vastly improved for both you and your patient. Most patients are just looking for a little reassurance and validation from their physician.

Consider this scenario: Your office has referred a patient to Dr. Eye, a retina specialist. The patient knows something is wrong with her eyes, but doesn’t have a clue what this means for her future, and it frightens her. Here are few thoughts that might go through her mind:

“I don’t know this doctor, I wonder if he’s really good.
Am I going to lose my sight?
Will the treatment be painful?
How much will this cost?”

It’s important to pay close attention to what this patient says and does, before you send her out the door with referral in hand. If she asks you how long Dr. Eye has been with the practice or how long you have worked with him, she has a reason. She really wants to know if he’s a good doctor and is nice to his patients. Reassure her by saying something like: “I’ve worked with Dr. Eye for several years and he’s great. I’m sure you’ll like him - everyone does.” Of course you must be honest and sincere.

Here’s another example: Your receptionist has observed a restless patient in the waiting room who keeps looking at his watch. He’s testily inquired, “How much longer will I have to wait? I have another appointment at 3 p.m.” Counsel her not to make a vague guess that might be inaccurate, instruct her to simply say, “I’m sorry sir, sometimes a patient needs more time and we get a little off schedule. I’ll check with the nurse to see how quickly we can get you in.”

Easing the mind of your patients is an important part of each visit. Remember, you are treating the patient, not just a condition. Begin each visit with this intent. Listen to the questions your patient asks, while watching his body language. You have the potential to reduce his anxiety and provide important reassurance, which results in a better patient experience.

Ask your staff to observe patients’ facial expressions and body movements. If a patient seems overly apprehensive or annoyed, it’s important for your staff to communicate this to you before the patient visit. During his visit, remember to make eye contact by looking him directly in the face; this shows that your attention is focused solely on his problem. Make every effort to put him at ease. When speaking, use his name often, and don’t forget to end the appointment by asking, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

Every staff member can enrich your patients’ experiences by acknowledging them as they pass in the hallway, making eye contact, smiling, and saying hello. It really doesn’t take much time and the payoff is immense. What else can you do so easily that promotes your practice as one that truly cares about its patients?

Judy Capko is a healthcare consultant and author of the popular books “Secrets of the Best Run Practices” and “Take Back Time.” Based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., she is a national speaker on healthcare topics. She can be reached at judy@capko.com or 805 499 9203.