Studies and news articles about the importance of the relationship between physicians and patients are prolific; the take away is always the same: better, more frequent communication and deeper empathy produces better health outcomes, not only for the individuals involved, but healthcare establishments too. For instance, research suggests that communication failure (rather than a provider’s lack of technical skill) was at the root of more than 70% of serious adverse health outcomes in hospitals. While medical schools have put more emphasis on developing better communication skills and physicians report feeling happier in their careers when patient satisfaction is greater, we’re still having the conversation. What can we do to eliminate the need for the discussion and truly make a difference?
Challenges & Solutions
Nobody comes to the hospital for fun. When they are admitted, they tend to be scared, worried, or anxious. Physicians need to understand their emotional status, provide a clear diagnosis, and demonstrate genuine care for what they are feeling. Yet there are many factors that get in the way and contribute to less than ideal patient–physician relationships. These include:
- Health reimbursement guidelines: Healthcare reimbursement has created a “quantity over quality” mindset for most physicians, since reimbursement depends on the speed of patient discharge. If done correctly, improving patient–physician relationships does not require much time… just practice.
- Hospital environment: Many hospitals are not equipped with the right expertise to care for complicated hospitalized patients who often require more than one visit and detailed explanations of their treatment and care. The hospitalist approach for all branches and services is a potential solution.
- The role of non-believers: Some believe that with too much empathy, the medical field will become too soft, negatively impacting objectivity. By communicating the facts more effectively and with empathy, we empower patients with knowledge, a powerful tool in helping patients trust their physicians.
- Misconception that ignorance is bliss: It can be hard for physicians to see things from patients’ perspectives. Communicating on the patients’ level requires awareness and a sincere desire for improved care. Continual practice and constructive feedback from colleagues are essential for better outcomes.
Knowing and addressing the challenges and solutions to better patient–physician relationships is a great start, but the biggest improvements will come with a mindset shift. Physicians should seek to understand what patients value, which only requires asking oneself a few simple questions to develop a deeper state of consciousness:
- What do people expect from healthcare professionals like me?
- What are the values or beliefs of the people I serve or see regularly?
- How do I want patients to talk about me to their close friends and family?
- If I received a letter from my patient, what would I want it to say?
- What is the promise I am making to my patients, and what actions would they expect of me as a result?
Seven Ways to Affect Change
For physicians to live by something, it must be practiced daily. Posting this list of the “Seven Actionable Ways to Be Change Agent for higher Levels of Patient Satisfaction” (Figure) throughout a hospital or clinic is a good way to start, followed by providing training for all staff based on the content and collecting anecdotal stories and examples of how the principles were used, as well as the difference(s) they made. This gives the power to be an agent of change. My hope is that together we can make enough positive change with patient–physician communication, so that it isn’t something we are talking about anymore but instead is just the way things are.