How I connect with patients

March 18, 2005

This doctor learned that there's more to waiting room magazines than something to read.

As I walked into my office waiting room several months ago, I greeted several patients who looked remarkably well. The waiting room itself, however, looked in critical condition. I cringed as I spied the usual array of dog-eared copies of years old National Geographic, Field & Stream, and Good Housekeeping. Some were mine; some had been left behind by my patients.

Just then, one of my regular patients, a man not known for mincing his words, approached me and said, "Hey Doc, there's nothing worth reading here. Maybe you should consider investing in a few new magazines for the waiting room."

I've been in private practice since 1991, and in all those years I had never paid much attention to the magazines in our office waiting room. But after my patient's comment, I began to think that some new magazines might indeed be a worthwhile investment.

I took a few issues of each and put them in the waiting room, and the wisdom of my strategy soon became apparent. A patient in for an annual physical exam told me, "Doc, I'm amazed to see Stereophile in your waiting room. I love that magazine." That started a fascinating discussion about our shared interest in stereo equipment. It was a great break in the day, and it certainly put both doctor and patient in a good mood.

Later that day, another patient remarked, "I saw the Guitar Player in your waiting room. Do you play the guitar yourself?" We then had a wonderful conversation about our mutual love of blues guitar music, and how playing an instrument can lead to many health benefits. Similarly, the photography magazines helped me discover that several of my patients are avid amateur photographers.

The magazines have opened new lines of communication with my patients. For example, they helped me treat one elderly diabetic gentleman whom I'd had trouble with for years because he was noncompliant, despite my repeated pleas. But after reading a copy of The Clarinet in the waiting room one day, he related his history as a woodwind player with one of the Big Bands in the 1940s. Since that enjoyable conversation, he's become much better about following his treatment regimen. He says it's because he now feels more comfortable taking advice from a "fellow musician" who happens to be his doctor.

I've since broadened the range of our waiting room reading with magazines about writing (Writer's Digest), publishing (Publishers Weekly), fitness (Men'sHealth), and other magazines about computers, personal finance, and investing. My patients have volunteered their own favorites like Woman's Day, FamilyCircle, Sports Illustrated, and The American Legion. Some of them are magazines I wasn't even aware existed before, and I've enjoyed reading them myself. In this way, our waiting room has become a kind of lending library. We encourage patients to take home any magazine they find interesting, or just to "borrow" it to finish an article they started while waiting for an appointment. No one seems to abuse this offer; in fact most bring in their own favorite magazines, which helps broaden our mix.

I now know what that patient meant when he advised me to invest in some new magazines. That small investment has yielded rich rewards in patient satisfaction and the pleasure of discovering shared interests.