Transforming the patient experience: Tips for better patient communication

April 20, 2020

By focusing on communication and conveying information clearly and with compassion, physicians can bring the human touch to treatment that builds lasting relationships with patients.

The vast majority of Americans share something in common each year – visits to physicians’ offices, hospitals or emergency departments. According to the CDC, 84.3% of adults had contact with a healthcare professional in 2018, and the American Hospital Association reports there were more than 35 million admissions to U.S. hospitals in 2019. These visits have created another area of commonality in that far too many patients share a dissatisfaction with their experiences.

In a recent survey exploring how patients describe their interactions with doctors and nurses, 71% of respondents said they experienced a lack of compassion when speaking with a medical professional, and 73% stated they always or often feel rushed by their doctor. These findings point to a pressing need for healthcare professionals to develop people skills and communication techniques that can transform the patient experience, increase patient satisfaction and improve outcomes.

People skills, or “soft skills,” are interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationship and interaction with others. These soft skills, which include verbal and non-verbal communication techniques, listening skills and empathy, are important for every professional but are absolutely critical in the healthcare sector.

Why? The fact is, a healthcare professional’s ability to master the language of compassion and form trusting relationships with patients enhances patient satisfaction, boosts patient loyalty, and positively impacts the bottom line.

The extent to which providers are mastering communication is reflected in online reviews and patient satisfaction scores. In this digital age, the internet provides healthcare consumers with easy access to online reviews and government patient satisfaction scores, allowing them to gauge how providers are doing.

According to a 2019 survey by Software Advice, internet review sites such as Yelp and HealthGrades are having a growing influence on medical providers’ reputations and ability to attract new patients. The survey found that 94% of patient respondents use online reviews to evaluate physicians and 72% use online reviews as the first step to finding a new doctor.

In addition, a clear relationship exists between a healthcare provider’s ability to communicate and patient outcomes. Patients who feel connected to their provider are more likely to follow the treatment plan, follow-up with their doctor and take their prescribed medication. This goes a long way toward ensuring better health outcomes for patients.

While there is no doubt that communication skills are critical to enhancing patient satisfaction and improving clinical outcomes, these essential skills are seldom taught in medical school or during residency training. Healthcare providers need training to develop effective communication techniques that convey compassion with body language as well as in their words. Once they master these skills, physicians can gain confidence in their ability to handle difficult conversations and increase the efficiency of conversations. The five techniques outlined below can help physicians build trusting relationships with patients.

Understand the importance of communication

A first step in building trust with patients is to understand the importance of communication. Many physicians think communication is simply about asking the right questions. While asking the right questions an important part of patient communication, the nuances of communication – including verbal and nonverbal cues, tone and cadence – are equally important. Thus, healthcare providers that don’t invest in communication training may be putting patient loyalty at risk. A Press Ganey report found that patient experience is five times more likely to affect loyalty with a healthcare provider than marketing.

Take a seat

A simple thing like grabbing a chair, sitting down and giving patients undivided attention can go a long way in fostering trusting relationships. Studies have shown that physicians who sit during a patient interaction are perceived as spending more time with their patient than those who spend more time standing. Standing up also gives patients the impression that they’re being rushed.

Listen actively

Active listening is important in helping patients feel comfortable when communicating with their doctor. Physicians often interrupt patients. In fact, the average time it takes a doctor to interrupt a patient is 11 seconds, which does not give patients much opportunity to explain how they are feeling and ask questions. Physicians are taught to take a detailed medical history and ask the right questions in an interview-style conversation but are not taught how to listen to build rapport and relationships. A few good techniques for building this rapport include asking open-ended questions, avoiding the temptation to interrupt and really listening to what patients are saying and how they are saying it.

Avoid multitasking

Technology has improved a lot of processes and procedures in the medical profession, but it also promotes multitasking, driving a wedge between doctors and patients in their interactions. Doctors will often type in the electronic health record (EHR) while the patient is talking. This gives the patient the impression the doctor is not listening, making it more difficult to form a bond with that physician. By looking down at a screen, providers miss the nuances of patient communication such as the patient’s tone and facial expression. Physicians can collect a lot of information by simply watching patients as they speak. Some hospitals are addressing this issue by using scribes to enter information into the EHR, allowing physicians to give undivided attention to the patient. This practice, however, has not yet become common.

Find commonality

Building a connection with patients is about building rapport, and rapport is about commonality. Finding something in common with a patient – whether it is supporting the same sports team, having teenage children or enjoying the same hobby – can open the lines of communication with that patient. This helps them see the doctor as a more relatable person and helps build the trust critical to establishing a relationship. 

Doctors are seeing more and more patients and dealing with an increasing amount of documentation and time-consuming administrative issues that make it is easy to become task-oriented instead of patient-oriented. By focusing on communication and conveying information clearly and with compassion, physicians can bring the human touch to treatment that builds lasting relationships with patients, resulting in healthier and happier patients and a thriving practice.

Dr. Anthony Orsini is a practicing neonatologist and founder of The Orsini Way, a program and digital platform that shows healthcare professionals a way to communicate that enhances patient satisfaction and improves outcomes.