Simple Ways to Improve the Doctor-Patient Relationship

One of the most overlooked functions of communication is establishing the patient relationship.
One of the most overlooked functions of communication is establishing the patient relationship.

In medical school, physicians probably learned communication skills such as interviewing (getting information from patients on the reasons for their visit), processing (assessing the patients and their disease), and talking (clearly relaying diagnoses to them).  

But other important aspects of patient care, such as empathy, relationship-building, and dealing with patients' emotions are often given less emphasis.

“There are some very simple things you can do to allow a patient to feel they have your attention,” said Walter Baile, MD, director of the Interpersonal Communication and Relationship Enhancement (I*CARE) program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Sit down, make eye contact, and don't interrupt until they are finished talking. Doctors don't always get sued because they make mistakes; it's often because they disregard patients.”

Relationships matter

One of the most overlooked functions of communication, according to Dr Baile, is establishing that patient relationship. “This is a crucial concept,” he said. “What can we do as clinicians to establish a trusting relationship with patients so they feel we have their best interests at heart and care about them as people, and not just bodies?”

Patients want to be treated like individuals, not guinea pigs. Physicians should explain the actions they take, such as prescribing medication or ordering tests, and inform patients about the possible consequences, he said.

Although physicians may find it daunting to establish connections with patients during short visits, it does not take long to obtain information from patients—such as what they do for a living—that could provide the basis for a closer physician-patient relationship.

A simple phrase like “Tell me about yourself and who is in your family,” is a good way to start a visit, Dr Baile said. This demonstrates that physicians have an interest in them as people and not just patients. 

He noted also that people from around the world seek care at MD Anderson, and physicians may need to know important things that affect their care such as that they may not be able to afford to stay nearby for a long period for radiation treatment or other treatments.

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