Have you ever wondered why patients put off going to the doctor much longer than they should? Most Americans would say they’ve done this at least once in their lifetime. The reasons are not always the same, but a lot of people are uneasy about going to the doctor. For some, it’s a fear of a terrible diagnosis or a confirmation of poor health choices. For others, it’s a phobia about needles or certain procedures. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of feeling embarrassed about whatever problem is warranting the doctor visit. Whatever the reason, a lot of people put off going to the doctor. However, this is definitely not the best thing for anyone. One way to get patients to see their doctor regularly is to improve the doctor patient relationship.
Why Is It Important to Build the Doctor Patient Relationship?
In order to get the best healthcare possible, it’s important to have a good doctor patient relationship. As a doctor, you will be performing exams or procedures that might be slightly invasive or embarrassing, and you need to be able to talk to your patients openly and honestly. You want your patients to be completely honest about their symptoms. You want them to feel comfortable. To achieve this, you need a doctor-patient relationship built on trust.
Another reason to build the doctor patient relationship is that, when you see the same patient over a long period of time, you may be able to pick up on changes in their body that are only noticeable over time. You may even notice things about your patient that they haven’t noticed. Regular check-ups can be invaluable in catching any possible diseases early.
A final reason for having a good doctor-patient relationship is mental health. One of the most difficult areas in healthcare in the US is mental health care. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, and it’s difficult to discuss. If your patient feels like they are struggling with a mental illness, it will be much easier to address with someone whom they have a solid relationship.
Tips for Medical Staff to Improve Relationships with Patients
The medical staff at any doctor’s office play a vital role in the doctor patient relationship. A patient should feel comfortable from the moment they enter the office. You are the first act when it comes to the narrative of their healthcare experience. You should make sure you’re covering the basics. They are:
An Inviting Space
Work with the doctor or doctors to make the waiting room and reception area are warm and inviting. You want your patients to feel safe in the office, so a little extra effort is essential. Aim for comfortable chairs, reading material, something for children to do, and maybe a television. Keep tissues and water available. Make sure there is adequate seating.
Make sure patients know exactly where to go when they come in. Have an obvious flow and make it easy to find the sign-in sheet or board. Be ready to greet patients when they come in.
Remember the Patients
Try your best to remember the first names of patients who visit your practice. They will feel much more at ease if they hear their first name. Also, pick a detail about each patient to ask about when they visit. They will feel more welcomed and comfortable if they have a connection with staff who know how many children they have or that a major life event just occurred.
Systems for Scheduling and Different Appointment Categories
You will be dealing with several types of appointments on an average day. Some of these categories are:
- Diagnosis and quick treatment
- Treatment of chronic conditions
- Wellness visit
Your office should have a plan for each type of visit to know what your patient is there for. Their chart should be clearly marked so that you know, going in, what the patient needs. You can also prepare any equipment or documentation ahead of time. When a patient feels like you’ve taken the time to know why they’re there, it strengthens the doctor patient relationship.
Daily Clinic Meeting
It’s helpful to meet with all the staff each day. This gives you all an opportunity to bring up any particularly tricky cases for the day. It’s also the time to get on the same page about any issues in the exam rooms or problems assigning or cleaning rooms. You can also update each other on any vital information for patients who are coming in that day.
Assign Staff Tasks and Roles Clearly
One thing that makes patients frustrated or uneasy is feeling as though there is poor communication. Having someone come into a room with an ultrasound machine when they were supposed to have an EKG is disconcerting to the patient. Make sure each staff member knows exactly what role they will be playing and how they will be receiving instructions. Communicate clearly at each step of the visit to avoid asking patients questions multiple times.
Practice Scripts for Difficult Interactions
Inevitably, there are going to be difficult patients and stressful situations. When these things happen, it’s a good idea to be prepared with responses, so you appear professional, and your responses are consistent across staff members. Examples may include patients who want to address issues that were not part of the reason for the original appointment and patients who bring friends or family members with them in hopes of receiving treatment. When this happens, you want to be ready with a prepared response. This will stop the problem from happening again because the patient will realize what they’re being told is a policy all the staff is aware of and will enforce in the same way. Kindness and consistency are the best way to handle difficult situations.
Know How Long Patients Are Waiting
One of the most frustrating things for patients is long wait times with no explanation. It’s important to implement a system to know how long a patient has been in any given location along the way. Patients who feel “forgotten” in a room don’t have a positive feeling about their doctor or the office. It is especially important if you are seeing a parent with small children. It is incredibly challenging to manage a toddler, especially a sick toddler, in an exam room filled with things they cannot touch. In this situation, do everything you can see the patient quickly, and communicate any delays promptly. Overall, to improve the doctor patient relationship, make sure wait times are short, or at least well communicated.
Tips for Physicians to Strengthen the Doctor Patient Relationship
In addition to making sure that the staff promotes a positive office environment, there are steps every physician should take to strengthen the doctor patient relationship. Some of them are as simple as showing empathy while others involve systems you can put in place to make the whole experience more positive for your patients. The following are several ways to improve the doctor-patient relationship:
Start with Two-Way Communication
When you start a patient visit, make sure to keep the conversation two-sided. Ask questions and listen carefully to responses. Don’t immediately make an assumption based on what you see or what has happened with other patients. Try to remember details about the patient’s personal life and ask about what’s happening with their family. Sometimes patients will reveal clues as to why they are stressed, fatigued, or chronically ill in their dialogue about their life. Always give the patient time to ask questions and answer thoroughly. Don’t head for the door, making them feel as though they don’t have time to ask questions.
Ask Questions Using the BATHE Technique
When you ask your patient questions, try to use the BATHE technique, which stands for Background, Affect, Trouble, Handling, and Empathy. A sample set of BATHE questions:
- What’s going on in your life?
- How do you feel about all of that?
- What is causing you the most trouble?
- How are you currently handling the problem?
- I understand how that must be difficult for you
When you use this technique, you should uncover any issues your patient is having. It shows the patient you care and that you plan to help them. It also helps to know that you understand their suffering. Empathy is one of the most significant but under-used tools in medicine. A patient’s anxiety level will drop significantly just knowing that someone understands their struggle. They feel less alone and often less scared. This is one of the most important pieces of advice in medicine. Always show empathy.
Use Friendly and Caring Body Language and Nonverbal Communication
We are all guilty, sometimes, of being distracted while talking with someone. When you are in a room with a patient is not the time for this. No matter what else you have going on in the day, no matter how many other patients there are, make sure your body language does not communicate a desire to get done as quickly as possible. It’s better to sit down, take notes if you need, and make eye contact while you speak to your patient. Lean in and nod, so they know you are listening. Standing with your back to the patient or searching for supplies while they are talking says you either don’t care or aren’t listening. Never stand with your hand on the doorknob when a patient has a question.
Rephrase What the Patient Has Said and Ask for Confirmation
In order to make sure that you understand what your patient is telling you, it’s a good idea to repeat back to them what they have said. Ask if you got it right. If not, ask them to explain again. It’s important that you get all the right information and that they feel heard. This works in reverse as well. Have the patient repeat instructions back to you to make sure they understand what to do.
Be Aware of Cultural Backgrounds and Your Own Biases
You may encounter patients that come from other cultures or backgrounds different from your own. Be open and prepare to react appropriately. You may need to work out religious beliefs when creating a care plan or discuss cultural differences when addressing your patient’s lifestyle choices. All of these things affect health, and it’s important to understand what role culture plays in making healthy choices. Also, be prepared to use a translator to cross language barriers if necessary. Make sure all medical terminology is correctly translated.
Look at Original X-Rays Instead of Relying on Reports
When you are diagnosing your patients, one way to avoid errors and instill more confidence in your patients is to use the original X-rays when you make a diagnosis rather than relying on a report. It may seem easier to just read from a report, but the people reading the scans are reading a lot of scans one after the other. With that kind of volume, it’s very easy to miss something. There’s no substitute for reading the scan yourself and going over it with the patient. Most patients will appreciate being able to see their results. So, if possible, use the original X-ray when making a diagnosis.
Focus on the Positives When Encouraging Lifestyle Changes
As a doctor, you’ll want to encourage your patients to make lifestyle changes that can reverse or prevent disease. These changes are often a far better option than using medications or invasive procedures to treat chronic illnesses. Diseases like diabetes and heart disease can often be reversed through lifestyle changes. It would be far better for a patient to lose some weight and change their diet than to remain on medications to treat diabetes for years. However, asking your patient to make these lifestyles changes can be a delicate issue. So how should you approach it?
Stay positive. When you’re asking someone to cut out sugar or salt or to exercise more, emphasize the good things about the change. Help them to imagine less fatigue and living without joint pain. Talk with them about having more energy and getting better sleep. Don’t focus on their current bad habits or how many mistakes they’ve made. Guilt and shame are not the way to go when encouraging patients to make lifestyle changes. Focusing on the negative will very often cause your patient to make more negative choices. Be encouraging and let them know you’re on their side. Let them see you as a partner in their success, and you should see much better results.
Give Staff Verbal Instructions Along with Notes
When you are communicating with your staff, make sure you are thorough. It’s a good idea to give verbal instructions for what you need for the patient, but also make notes. Always clarify any confusion right away and don’t be afraid to over-communicate. It’s better to say too much than too little and make a mistake. When making notes, make sure to include all the smaller details. It will greatly improve the doctor patient relationship if you remember the little details about previous appointments. Your staff will follow your lead and appreciate the attention to the little things.
In a perfect world, the doctor patient relationship would be one that lasts a lifetime. If a patient could be followed by one doctor for his or her entire life, that physician would be intimately familiar with their medical history, their mental health history, and the patient’s personality. Unfortunately, that is rarely possible. We live in a time when people don’t live their whole lives in one location, and insurance companies or job changes cause patients to have to find new doctors. It’s not a perfect situation, but there are things you can do as a practice to improve the doctor patient relationship.
First, work with your staff to emphasize that positive relationships are valued in your office. Make sure your office is welcoming and that your team is prepared to make patients feel at ease. Keep the lines of communication open between doctor and staff, and doctor and patient. Make sure that staff clearly understand instructions, goals, and their individual responsibilities. Keep up with wait times and never let a patient feel “forgotten.” Make sure your staff has a plan to deal with difficult situations so they don’t escalate into the loss of a patient.
When you are with a patient, make that time about them. Take a seat. Make eye contact even if you are also writing things down. Actively listen and repeat what they say. Ask questions using the BATHE method. When making a diagnosis, review the scans and tests yourself. Watch your body language and be aware of cultural differences or language barriers. Let the patient ask questions and don’t rush them. Encourage them when they make positive changes and help them continue those positive changes by focusing on the good they’ve done rather than the bad. Be available. Remember that the doctor patient relationship is a relationship. It requires some give and take on both sides. If you are prepared to do these things and go into each day with a positive attitude, you will make a positive difference in the lives of all your patients.