I vividly remember a conversation that changed my career. During residency, my attending physician shared three simple questions clinicians must answer to win a patient’s trust:
Who are you?
Are you any good?
Do you really care about me?
The third question surprised me. I’d always assumed that being a good physician meant having all the answers. Now I realized that in order to be at my best for patients, I needed to show my human side. As scary as it felt, I’d have to reveal the living, breathing person behind my white coat and medical degree.
Twenty years later, the human side of medicine has completely transformed my life. It has helped me find immense joy in my work and become a healer in the fullest sense of the word. I’m so passionate about the power of connection in medicine that I’ve made it my mission and leadership focus. In this article, I’m thrilled to share the approaches I find valuable to help clinicians communicate warmth and genuine care to patients.
Why Focus on Patient Connection?
It’s a fair question, given the ever-growing demands on physicians’ time. Here are a few reasons to consider.
- Career satisfaction and longevity. In an era when 42% of physicians report burnout symptoms, patient connections can help us thrive in the profession. As clinicians, we operate under so much red tape and external constraints that it’s easy to forget we are social beings wired for human connection. Our brains reward positive patient interactions with a warm burst of oxytocin. Focusing on relationships also reminds us why we chose medicine in the first place: to heal, help, and improve patients’ lives.
- Better clinical outcomes. Why do some patients happily comply with our recommendations while others won’t lift a finger to change? It has a lot to do with building trust.
Genuine empathy and connection can change patients’ lives for the better. This is especially true for racial minorities, LBGTQ patients, and others who are frequent targets of healthcare discrimination. For example, a 2018 study found that having a Black doctor led Black men to get more preventative care screenings. A compassionate connection with patients does lead to improved clinical outcomes!
- Leadership opportunities. As front-line physicians, we don’t always think of ourselves as leaders. But our patients see us in that role. What’s more, the skills we use to guide, inspire, and motivate them can translate into job opportunities down the road. So if you’re interested in moving into administration, start using patient encounters to build rapport and hone those communication skills. Your colleagues will appreciate them too.
Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on the importance of connection, let’s dive into those three key questions we must answer for patients.
Who Are You? And Are You Any Good?
Don’t take for granted that patients know your role. They see dozens of people in white coats, scrubs, and stethoscopes every day in the hospital—and likely have only a hazy idea what these characters do. To clarify things, always state your full name and job title when meeting patients and family. It’s also a good idea to briefly describe your role, as job titles like “hospitalist” will be mysterious to many. Finally, hand the patient a card with your photo for future reference.
Next, it’s time to establish credibility. Contrary to popular belief, most patients could care less that you graduated from a top ten medical school. They want to know you’re taking steps to help them. Describe how you’ve already been working on the case by reviewing records and consulting with the care team. Hearing that you’re in touch with a trusted person like their primary care doctor can also ease patients. And finally, if you have several years of experience, don’t be shy to mention it.