“The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred”—George Bernard Shaw
Providing your patients with quality care requires more than writing a prescription or scheduling a surgery. It requires getting to know your patients, listening to their fears and concerns, fostering a comfortable relationship and a relaxed atmosphere. It requires looking your patients in the eye, watching their body language, actively listening to their complaints and concerns. It requires empathy. A patient’s slight anxiety over a possible illness can amplify tenfold if not addressed properly, perhaps because the doctor is rushed for time, or assumes the patient understands the explanation provided, which is, to the doctor, seemingly self-evident. The psychological aspect of patients’ interactions with their doctors can be just as important as the physical aspect of their care, and facilitating improved doctor-patient communication can greatly elevate the quality of care you provide your patients.
Look Your Patients In the Eye
With electronic health and medical records becoming increasingly prevalent, much of the time that used to be spent with patients listening to their concerns and engaging with them face-to-face is now spent looking at a computer screen to in order to record the information they provide. Patients have a harder time connecting with their doctor because of this distraction, potentially increasing their anxiety and making them less forthcoming about their concerns and fears. Dr. Harlan Krumholz asserts that we should “promote the kind of communication that enables patients to be better able to make difficult choices, to be more confident in pursuing strategies they choose and to be more likely to achieve the results that they desire”. Eye contact fosters this sort of communication and is essential in establishing a connection with a patient, as it communicates concern, active listening, and engagement with the patient’s words. Looking your patients in the eye also conveys a sense of equality, lessening the inherent power imbalance and making patients feel more comfortable.
Actively Listen to Your Patients
Try to listen more and talk less. Don’t dominate the conversation or interrupt patients, as that only serves to decrease their confidence and make them less likely to open up to you. In an article for aafp.org George T. Wolff, MD, says, ‘“Studies have shown that the patient normally speaks for an average of 18 seconds before the doctor interrupts,” Wolff says. “But if the doctor lets them speak for three to four minutes, they tell you 90 percent of what’s wrong with them”’. Interrupting the patient won’t always get you the information more quickly. If patients feel anxious and less confident, they may hesitate to ask questions and leave the office unsatisfied without fully divulging their situation. If their doctor listens respectfully and responds accordingly, patients are more likely to open up, voice their concerns, and seek out information. It helps to ask open-ended questions about how patients are feeling and what their concerns are.
Watch Your Patients’ Body Language
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”—Peter Drucker
Noticing your patients’ body language is essential for multiple reasons. For one, it shows patients’ that you are engaged with the conversation and devoting your attention to their case. Body language can also contain non-verbal cues that contradict what patients say verbally, due to shame, discomfort, embarrassment, or a variety of other emotions that can cause patients to keep important information to themselves, to their own detriment. It’s important to notice the way a patient with high cholesterol and a weakness for ice cream averts his eyes and grimaces slightly when you ask if he’s been avoiding certain foods. According to Dr. Carol Cassella, although it may seem obvious, body language and facial expressions can be easy to miss if you’re looking at the patient’s chart on the computer screen instead of at the patient.
Share Decision Making Between You and Your Patient
Building up the connection between doctors and patients into a comfortable and respectful relationship requires a measure of equality that allows the patient to have some input in their treatment. The educated patient asks questions, understands his/her diagnosis and treatment plan, and feels comfortable sharing concerns, fears, and misgivings with his/her doctor. Allowing patients to share in the decision-making regarding their own health fosters a good relationship between doctor and patient. According to Dr. Susan Devore, active communication “supports shared decision making between care teams AND patients and their caregivers”. So how do patients participate in decision-making? You can encourage them to ask questions and be well-informed, make sure they understand all their options and discuss their concerns until they are satisfied. Such a process creates a lasting connection that allows for clearer and more successful communication in the future.
Expressing a measure of empathy goes a long way in alleviating your patients’ misgivings and concerns. If a doctor is dismissive or short with patients, they often leave feeling even more uncertain and anxious than when they came in. Even well-educated patients can feel intimidated in the doctor’s office. According to <rel=”nofollow>Dominick Frosch, PhD and fellow in the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Patient Care Program, ‘“[…] patients often feel intimidated by their physicians and worry that if they were to disagree with something their physician proposes, that will lead to them being labeled “difficult” and then they worry that they’ll receive lower quality care in the future.”’ Something that may seem obvious or self-evident to you may be inscrutable to your patients, so it’s important to explain exactly what’s going on, giving them the opportunity to ask you questions and voice their concerns without feeling intimidated. Listening respectfully and responding to questions patiently shows patients empathy and accomplishes a great deal in the way of making them more comfortable and allowing for better doctor-patient communication.
Patients can tell when their doctor is feeling pressed for time. If their doctor seems distracted or rushed, patients begin to feel underappreciated, as if their medical concerns aren’t as important as the next patient’s. Time concerns are understandable, but often a 10-15 minute appointment window just isn’t enough to adequately connect with a patient, listen to and address their concerns and fears. Adding just five minutes to each appointment could greatly reduce that feeling of being rushed, which would, in turn, make patients feel appreciated and more comfortable communicating with their doctor. According to Family Practice Management, if increasing the length of your appointments just isn’t feasible, then it’s best to avoid looking at your watch or keeping one hand on the doorknob, even if you are rushed.
Show that You Care, Outside the Office
Communication between doctor’s offices and patients doesn’t end at the door. A great way to facilitate patient communication beyond the office is to send appointment reminder calls, texts, or emails, which allows patients to confirm or cancel their appointments. Considering that patients may very well forget their appointments, the reminder message serves the dual purpose of decreasing the number of no-shows and making patients feel appreciated in turn. Receiving such a reminder indicates to patients that you care for their well-being and are ready to listen to their complaints. It doesn’t hurt that these reminder messages free up both your staff’s time and your own time, giving you the opportunity to forge better relationships with your patients.
How to Better Communicate with Patients
To summarize, here are some tricks to help you improve doctor-patient communication:
1. Use good eye contact.
2. Learn active listening.
3. Read their body language.
4. Share decision making.
5. Communicate empathy.
6. Slow down.
7. Keep caring when the office visit is over.
Patient reminders are a great way to improve communication. Try our patient reminder demo!