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The State of Doctor-Patient Relationships & How to Improve Them

By Thomas Gole, DO, FAAFP05 Jan 2017

Doc Patient.jpgThink back to the last time you visited your physician. How much time did you actually spend speaking with your doctor? For a portion of the appointment, your doctor was likely reading through a file or typing information into an EHR. Researchers at the Annals of Internal Medicine wanted to see how physicians were interacting with patients. They found that doctors spent slightly over half the time in the exam room providing direct clinical facetime. The rest of the time was spent updating EHRs or reading files. They also found that during a typical workday, physicians only spent 27 percent of the day face to face with patients. The rest — you guessed it — was spent on administrative tasks.

It’s no wonder then that patients and doctors can feel frustrated by the state of their doctor-patient relationships.

Here are a few things you can do to strengthen your relationships with your patients.

Ditch “Deny and Defend”

Many physicians are hesitant to apologize to a patient even when an error has hurt their health — commonly referred to as “deny and defend.” However, a small mistake — even if it’s not the fault of the physician — can impact how the patient views his or her care. Take the case of one of Seattle-based internist Dr. Thomas Gallagher’s patients. Gallagher’s obese patient needed an MRI, but because of his size, had to travel to a facility over an hour away that could accommodate him. During the procedure, technicians made an error that resulted in the patient having to travel back to the facility for a second MRI. Gallagher’s patient wasn’t harmed and did not threaten to sue, but the doctor still apologized for the error that wasn’t his.

As Gallagher explained: “Even a minor problem can be quite harmful to the well-being of the patient and the bond that exists between the patient and the doctor.”

Try Being Present and Mindful When with a Patient

This can seem like a huge hurdle when you have several things vying for your attention, but taking time for a moment of calm before you enter the exam room can make all the difference. Not being in the moment, notes Hospitals and Health Networks, can lead to distractions, which can make the patient feel like he or she didn’t get through to you or even worse, a medical error. Try taking a few deep breaths or a moment to focus on your breathing before going in to speak with a patient.

Practice Active Listening

You have the story of the patient’s illness or condition in his or her file. But instead of gleaning all your information from what’s in his or her medical record, try asking the patient to tell you how his or her condition has affected them. When the patient is telling his or her story, resist the urge to take notes or click into the EHR, then reflect what you’ve heard back to the patient. If you take a few minutes to do these things, you “will be astonished to discover how valuable it is to feel heard as well as how much information [you] can obtain in a short period of time,” points out Hospitals and Health Networks.

Patients want to feel like they are being heard and respected. A few simple tweaks in how you approach your time in the exam room can make all the difference in establishing and nurturing a solid doctor-patient relationship.

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