How to Truly Connect with Your Patients

Swati Mehta, MD

Swati Mehta , MD, FACP, SFHM, CPXP

Director of Quality and Performance

Published March 11, 2021

Hospitalist physician connecting with patients through virtual care.

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.

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"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."
Swati Mehta, MD, FACP
Swati Mehta, MD, FACPDirector of Quality and Performance

Do You Care About Me?

Showing care starts by addressing our patients’ fears. While they may voice some concerns openly, their deepest fears often remain unspoken. Common examples include:

  • Do you even care what I think?
  • Will you judge me by my income, gender, race, or health history?
  • Am I safe to open up and trust you?
  • Are we equal partners in my care?

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?

The 6H Model for Human Connection

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:

  1. Hear (their story). Listen to the patient’s perspective without interrupting. Often, their story is about much more than their medical complaints. Provide space for them to share what’s important.
  2. Heed (to their worries). Pay attention to the needs of the whole patient, including the medical, financial, social, and emotional dimensions of the illness. While we might not have the answers, we can still seek to understand their concerns and connect them with those who can help.
  3. Help (them navigate). Explain what patients can expect during their hospital stay and beyond. Help them understand the roles of their consultants and primary care doctor. Reassure them that you are keeping their care team members on the same page.
  4. Be (honest and human). Creating authentic connection means acknowledging the positives and negatives of the situation. When patients get emotional, resist the urge to talk them out of their feelings. Instead, offer reassurance or respond in kind with genuine compassion.
  5. Heal (misunderstandings). Most service failures stem from miscommunication. When they’re brought to our attention, it’s important to accept responsibility, apologize, and take steps to make the patient whole.
  6. Hope. While we don’t want to discount patients’ struggles, we can offer optimism when appropriate. Pointing out small wins and improvements helps to raise morale. Even when the situation seems bleak, let patients know you’re in this together.

Bonus Tips for Telehealth Visits

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.

  • Get comfortable with the technology. It’s even more important to build rapport during an online encounter than an in-person one. Depending on their comfort level with telehealth, patients may see technology as a barrier between you. One way to help them relax is to make the online visit as lifelike as possible with high-quality audio and video. (If you need help setting up your workstation, this article has some excellent tips.)
  • Acknowledge the situation. Take time to note any difficulties the patient experiences with the technology and let them know it’s OK to take their time or ask for clarification. As you would for an in-person visit, move through the three questions with your patient, making a special effort to show caring and empathy.
  • Leverage verbal and nonverbal communication skills. To simulate “eye contact,” look at your webcam while frequently scanning your patient for nonverbal cues. Let the patient know when you need to look down for a moment to take notes. And while you can’t use touch to reassure, you can convey care by putting a hand on your heart or squeezing your arm as if it were the patient’s arm.

Physicians Can Make the Difference in Patient Satisfaction

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.

Partnering to improve patient lives

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