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
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
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
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.
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://