Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine, once said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
What distinguishes the good from the great? Some might argue it’s the art of communication.
Traditional doctor-patient communication followed a “top-down” approach: The provider shared information or a diagnosis with a patient, and the patient listened quietly.
Today’s patients want more from their providers. They want more interaction; to feel heard and respected. They want to be active participants in their healthcare and the decision-making process.
In fact, effective doctor-patient communication is now regarded as a critical part of a holistic healthcare experience. It enables providers to understand every aspect of a patient’s life—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social drivers of health, and more. It also builds trust, which fosters a warm, mutually respectful long-term relationship between both parties.
Beyond that, research shows good communication boosts positive outcomes, thanks to better patient recall, comprehension, and adherence. It’s also associated with a reduction in the inappropriate use of emergency health services.
Unfortunately, the time constraints and administrative burdens so common in modern medicine have made it increasingly hard for some providers to truly connect with patients. When the impersonal, top-down approach prevails, the result is often detachment, dissatisfaction, and frustration—not just for patients, but for providers, too. The lack of deep human connection is often cited as a cause of burnout.
The growing adoption of value-based care has reignited the importance of effective doctor-patient communication. Forming and nurturing close relationships with patients is a key component to driving success in value-based care.
Take a quality measure such as breast cancer screening, for example. A provider can recommend a patient get a mammogram, but it is then up to the patient to actually do it. Many don’t.
However, when a provider initiates an informative two-way dialogue about the benefits of cancer screenings and why they matter for the patient based on their personal health history, the patient is more likely follow through.
Providers benefit too. Better adherence leads to higher quality and patient satisfaction scores—both boons for business. Just as importantly, strong doctor-patient relationships allow providers to reconnect with the human side of medicine, which can help fight burnout.
Here are six practical ways providers can improve patient communication and build stronger, more trusting relationships.
Being a good communicator is more than knowing what to say. It’s also knowing when to stay silent and listen with genuine interest.
Open body language is key to active listening: Face the patient, make eye contact, nod and smile as appropriate, and keep your arms relaxed and uncrossed. When it’s your turn to respond, ask open-ended questions, prompting the patient to continue sharing.
Medical terminology can be confusing or overwhelming for patients. Explain difficult conditions, diagnoses, and concepts in the easiest, clearest way possible. Keep sentences short, speak slowly, and stay on one topic at a time. Be sure to stop frequently to answer any questions the patient may have.
Plan to spend extra time with people who are older or have hearing or cognitive difficulties. Be sure to account for this during your daily pre-visit planning sessions so that neither you nor the patient feels rushed during the appointment.
Research shows that implicit biases negatively influence diagnosis and treatment decisions and levels of care. Some of the more common biases in healthcare include gender, race, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and obesity.
You may feel that none of these factors affect your attitude toward patients or your medical decision making—which is always the goal. Even so, it is always a good idea to dig deep and reevaluate if a new bias may have crept in and started impacting your practice.
Being aware, acknowledging, and working through these feelings can go a long way in building strong patient relationships.
Patients are unique and diverse. Communication styles vary. Some people respond well to open-ended conversation, while others do better with videos, graphics, charts, or handouts that they can refer to later.
Same for post-visit communication—some patients want a phone call, while others prefer emails or messaging through the patient portal.
Adapting to each patient’s preferred communication style streamlines appointments and helps the patient feel valued.
The Internet and social media often serve as a patient’s first point of “care.” Now more than ever, providers must deal with the effects of medical sleuthing and possible misinformation that’s gathered along the way.
It can be tempting to dismiss or refute things patients read online. But defensiveness can strain a doctor-patient relationship—or worse, completely sever it.
Understand that fear is usually the root cause of patients believing misinformation. Use this as an opportunity to actively listen to your patient’s perspective, acknowledge anxieties, show empathy, and educate on the facts. In the process, you build genuine trust.
The doctor-patient relationship is paramount to a good healthcare experience. Communication is key to developing and maintaining this bond. As value-based care gains a stronghold in the healthcare landscape, strong communication and relationship building will become vehicles to drive not only success but better patient outcomes.