Monday, May 28, 2012

How Healthcare Professionals Can Improve Patient Relationships

Erin Palmer writes today about how we as future physicians can strengthen the relationship that is at the center of what we do: the patient-physician relationship.

How Healthcare Professionals Can Improve Patient Relationships

Trust is an integral component in any successful doctor-patient relationship. Even as a medical student, it is important to learn and practice relationship building. If patients trust, respect and like their physicians, they will communicate more effectively and be more open to the information the doctor presents, proactively working to improve their own health. That is why building strong patient relationships is important for anyone in the healthcare field.

It isn’t just the right thing to do professionally; it’s the smart business decision, too. With the prevalence of social media, bad patient reviews can spread like wildfire, having a negative impact on your career. New patients often research their physicians, so satisfied patients can help bring in business.

Below are a few tips to help you hone the communication skills necessary to keep patients coming back year after year.

Plan to Build Relationships
Gaining your patients’ trust is not a happy accident. It is something physicians must plan for. Make sure relationship building is part of your personal/professional mission statement and then work it into your daily clinical practice. Determine concrete techniques for making your patients feel valued as individuals and employ them during every visit. Simply shaking hands, making eye contact and initiating small talk during routine examination procedures can help make the patient feel at ease. Choose tactics that feel comfortable and natural to you so you can be consistent in your efforts.

Create a Conversation
In our digital age, conversation often gives way to emails, texts and instant messages. Technology can help, but face-to-face communication is a vital skill for doctors. At Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, students are learning how to converse with patients while reading and inputting EHR data. They even practice incorporating the laptop into patient interaction, sharing the screen and discussing the information presented with the patient.

Whether or not you choose to make your computer a participant in your conversation, striking a balance between talking and listening is the key to a successful conversation. Physicians are doing more listening these days so the doctor-patient relationship can be more teamwork and less lecturing. Patients can feel overwhelmed if they feel that their doctor is talking at them rather than to them. Think of your time spent listening as detective work. Your patients are more likely to be honest when they are a part of the conversation.

Determine Your Patient’s True Needs
Often patients come into a doctor’s office with a specific problem and perceptions of their symptoms. It’s the physician’s job to listen to these descriptions and ferret out a diagnosis and its underlying causes. In some cases, you will be presenting new information and answering the patient’s questions. In other cases, the challenge is to motivate the patient to make healthy choices they know they need to make but can’t quite seem to pull the trigger on. Motivation is a very individual thing; what inspires one person to finally lose weight or quit smoking is completely different than what works for another. The better you get to know your patients, the more able you will be to figure out what they really need and how best to give it.

It’s All in the Delivery
This old axiom isn’t just for comedians and obstetricians. Every physician needs to be aware of what they say and how they say it, especially when offering up a diagnosis or prognosis. Be sure your body language is consistent with your words. People don’t trust authority figures with cagey or closed-off mannerisms, especially if their demeanor doesn’t match the message they are delivering. If, as is often the case in healthcare, the news you are giving is neither all good nor all bad, strive for a tone of cautious optimism. Remember, your job is to present the patient with all options and help them make an educated decision as to which course of action to pursue.

Empathy is Key

On a related note, it is of course important to be sensitive to both your patient’s physical and emotional needs. People seeking medical attention are often in very vulnerable positions. They may be hurt, in pain and scared. It will probably fall to you to tell them things they do not want to hear.

Many physicians have come to the conclusion that empathy is the key emotion to project. Patients don’t want you to feel sorry for them. They want you to understand and identifywith what they are going through and how they feel. Empathy can be especially powerful in urging patients to find the strength to take responsibility for their medical condition and improving it. People want to know they are not alone; others have been through this and come out the other side.

Call for a Consult
Nobody trusts a know-it-all, especially a young one right out of medical school. You have the right to expect your patients to respect your knowledge and experience, but they have a right to know when you are out of your element. There is no shame in asking for help, calling in a specialist when you are facing a case that is outside your sphere of expertise. Sometimes the best way to build trust is to show your humanity. Simply saying, “I don’t know, but I will find you someone who does” can instill confidence that you are your patient’s advocate and will stop at nothing to get him or her the care needed.

Always Follow-Up
Relationship building doesn’t end when the patient walks out of your office or exam room. With the understanding that every clinical practice has different protocols, determine ways you can follow-up with your patients within the boundaries of how your practice operates. These might include the personal touch of a call or email or putting a note in the system to have a nurse check in or a receptionist verify that the follow-up appointment was made. In a typical office visit, patients are barraged with information on topics that are foreign and far out of their comfort zone. You will definitely set yourself apart from other healthcare providers by reaching out to make sure all your patients’ questions have been answered and they are following treatment orders appropriately.

People are complex, which is why building relationships is a tricky business, but it is absolutely essential to providing quality healthcare. If you value your patients, they will value you. Try to meet them where they are – probably nervous and scared – and extend empathy, respect, honesty and caring.

Erin Palmer writes about online healthcare degree programs and allied health careers for US News University Directory. For more information please visit http://

Saturday, May 26, 2012

3 Ways To Improve Your Personal Statement

This guest post by Lauren Bailey describes some key ways you can spruce up your personal statement as you apply for medical school, residency, fellowship, and beyond. As your stare at that blank Word document, or even as you are about to hit 'Submit' on ERAS, keep these points in mind.

3 Story Telling Elements that Can Instantly Improve Your Personal Statement

Every year medical school admission officers get hundreds of the same type of "formulaic" personal statements from their applicants—the statements typically lead with a mere, "I want to become a doctor because of x,y,z" and are usually dry throughout the entire piece. While yes it's true that admission officers favor clean and simple writing and usually pass on applicants that sound too pompous (or those that already write in "doctor-speak"), that doesn’t mean that they want personal statements that are boring. If your statement sounds like the rest, it will get thrown in the rejection pile. But by simply incorporating some traditional story telling elements to create a narrative, you can help your statement stand out. To learn how to do this effectively, continue reading below.

Start with a Personal Anecdote
Your introduction is the make it or break it point. From the very beginning you need to draw-in your reader. Otherwise, he or she may toss out your application almost instantly. One of the easiest ways to captivate your audience is to lead with an anecdote—a personal story that describes why you want to be a doctor or what brought forth your passion for medicine. There has to be some "aha!" moment or epiphany you experienced that made you think, "This is the profession for me, this is my true calling." Paint a narrative that helps re-enact that epiphany moment and then carefully tie it into a strong thesis. For example, maybe you wanted to become a doctor after someone in your family got severely ill. You could start it off like this: I was 8-years-old and cancer was a term I'd never heard of before. As my grandmother rested in the hospital bed, frail and hairless, I wanted nothing more than to have the power to heal her. How desperately I wanted the power to be able to heal everyone around world. At that moment, I realized that I wanted nothing more than to become a doctor. I feel attending [blank] medical school will not only help me accomplish my childhood dreams, but will also help me become the best possible healthcare provider possible.

Focus on Character Development
Your main objective when writing your statement is to come off as likable—admission officers must like you, otherwise you will get denied. Like in any story, there is always a main character. In this case, it's you. You want to make sure that when describing your strengths and weaknesses for example, you don't come off as arrogant, a know-it-all, or have any traits that some people might be turned-off by. For example, a popular "weakness" that applicants like to state is the fact that they're a perfectionist which can be both a blessing and a curse. While it's extremely generic, it's still a valid point. However, if you try to demonstrate that this by saying, "One semester I got a B and I was really hard on myself for a whole week" you might rub admission officers the wrong way. They already get plenty of applicants with pristine grade point averages. And who's to say that someone who makes 100's on written exams can translate those skills to real world scenarios? Instead, if perfectionism is truly a weakness then at least explain a scenario where it affected something that directly relates to healthcare—perhaps when volunteering at the local hospital or health care facility for example.

Be Careful with Language Choice
Last but not least, you need to use your power of language. That's not to say that you need to take out a thesaurus and use "fancy" words to help you sound intelligent. The admission officers already have your transcripts and records, they know you're intelligent. Instead, use this opportunity to sound like a "real" person—someone they'd like to meet in real life and interview. Your best way to accomplish this is to write using your natural voice; steer away from sounding too formal.

Personal statements don't have to be so cut and dry. But figuring out a way to incorporate the story telling elements mentioned above, you should give your statement that added spice that will persuade admission officers you deserve an interview.

This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, who regularly writes for online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: blauren99

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Can Pit Crews Heal Medicine?

Atul Gawande recently gave a TED talk entitled "How Do We Heal Medicine?" (check it out below).

In the talk, he harkens back to the central thesis of his recent book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right that medicine has become too complex for physicians to act as cowboys and instead should adopt the paradigm of a pit crew, utilizing teamwork and the humble checklist to solve problems and avert emergencies.

Is this really true though? Can "pit crews" heal medicine? To extend the analogy a bit, can a pit crew win the Indy 500? Try as they might, they would be completely unable to do so without three critical people: the team owner, the driver, and the pit crew boss. Honestly, all analogies fall apart at some point, and this one is already near the breaking point, but bear with me another moment. The patient in some ways is like the owner: he has the most at stake, yet relies on others to achieve his goal (a win). Similarly, the patient has her health on the line, and relies on medical professionals to get them to the finish line. To do so, they need a driver - someone who is pushing for that result. Ideally, the healthcare "driver" would be the patient's primary care physician - the doctor who is harnessing the resources of the "pit crew" of professionals to deliver the desired result. Unfortunately, all too often, this does not come to pass.

I suppose Gawande's true argument is that physicians and healthcare professionals should adopt some of the tactics of a pit crew, not literally become one. While necessary, this does not solve the dilemma from a patient's perspective. The patient has the most at stake, yet enters the healthcare arena under-informed and under-empowered. In complex cases, even their PCP may become overwhelmed by the complexity of their care. To remedy this, the incentives need to be reassessed. Currently, PCPs like all other providers get paid based on what they do. If it cannot be coded, it cannot be reimbursed. The sad reality is that there is no financial incentive for a PCP to have a thoughtful conversation with a patient, to visit them at home when they are very ill, or to even visit them in the hospital. With that link between patient and primary doctor under siege, the 'pit crew' of professionals in the hospital lack a driver, the PCP, the physician who knows the patient best. As our current system shows, our healthcare pit crews can still do amazing things - they just may not be in line with the patient's wishes.

Ultimately, the changes Atul Gawande advocates are certainly necessary. The concern I have is that they oversimplify the problem. Without working on strengthening the doctor-patient relationship at its core, any improvement to the efficiency of the hospital will not necessarily yield the benefits in patient satisfaction or healthcare outcomes we as a society desire.


Thursday, May 03, 2012

Tips for the 2012 USMLE Step 1 Exam

This guest post from MedStudentBooks gives a few tips for Step 1 preparation as well as mentions a few resources they have put together for students preparing for USMLE Step 1.

The USMLE Step 1 exam and the studying for it is often times seen as the most stressful period during medical school. Luckily, the team at 
Med Student Books ( is dedicated to providing insightful and money-saving information using the direct experience of upper classmen within this unique educational setting. 

While there are a lot of opinions out there, the best come from groups of medical students who have already taken step 1. With that in mind, the 
USMLE Step 1 Series is kicking into high gear to bring the best study tips from evidence and direct experience. 
While individual study habits and learning strengths should tailor each student's specific Step 1 study schedules, a few basic concepts apply to all. 
  1. Creating a comprehensive but flexible schedule is the most important first step that should be completed before studying. 
  2. First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 should be at the foundation of all study plans, but should not be used as the only book. It is a starting point, to be annotated to create a complete Step 1 resource. In-depth specialized books should be used to complement First Aid deficiencies. Specific recommendations can be found at this post.
  3. USMLE World is the recommended question bank. 
  4. Relaxation and avoiding burnout is vitally important and often times overlooked. 
Along with great tips on getting a competitive edge for Step 1, is also currently hosting a Step 1 Exam Survival Sweepstakes in collaboration with one of the largest medical book publishers, Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins. The prize includes several books recommended by, along with gift certificates and some other items that are helpful during board study time. The contest ends May 7, 2011, and further details can be found at the above link. 
Lastly, we recently released a 
Step 1 Percentile Calculator designed to help students keep track of progress with question banks and books over the course of their studies. Other new and exciting applications are currently in development, and several more posts in the Step 1 Series will be coming out shortly. Check back to over the course of the Step 1 study season for more ways to increase your score. 

Learn more at Good luck on Step 1!


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