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.
It’s a fair question, given the ever-growing demands on physicians’ time. Here are a few reasons to consider.
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.
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.
Showing care starts by addressing our patients’ fears. While they may voice some concerns openly, their deepest fears often remain unspoken. Common examples include:
One way to bring these fears into the open is to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgment. Respect any negative emotions or doubts the person expresses without making them personal. In fact, thank them for having the courage to share their true feelings.
You can also use your empathy, intuition, and cultural competence to address fears that patients are reluctant to voice. For example, when meeting a patient with opioid use disorder, you might say:
Many people don’t get treated for opioid use because they fear being judged. So first, I want to applaud your decision to get help. That takes a lot of strength. I also want you to know that we treat opioid use disorder as a health condition, not as a weakness or personal failure. If you feel OK sharing, what is it like for you to be in treatment? Do you have any questions or concerns I can help with?
More than any other tool I’ve encountered in my 20-year career, the 6H model has helped me to forge genuine connections with patients. This bond has allowed us to navigate even the most arduous hospital journeys with trust and mutual respect. 6H is so effective that I’m currently helping to embed it in several hospital medicine programs across California.
The 6H model covers six key skills that we can hardwire (and even script) into our patient interactions to help build rapport and trust:
If you’re one of the millions of physicians stepping into virtual care during the pandemic, it can feel like an alternate universe. This is especially true if you’ve never had any training in this medium. The good news is that telemedicine is still medicine—just in a slightly different venue. You will bring the same clinical and communication skills to your encounters. And with a few adaptations, you may be surprised how well they translate online.
As providers, we can’t control all the factors impacting the hospital experience. However, demonstrating genuine concern and compassion can significantly improve others’ perceptions of our care. When patients feel safe and respected, they often open their worlds to us and become more amenable to our recommendations. That is when true healing begins.
Learn more about career opportunities at Vituity where you can show genuine patient care.