What’s being heard: Methods for establishing strong patient rapport

Tags: Antonio Barksdale, patient rapport

By Antonio Barksdale, MD

As providers, particularly primary care providers, it is becoming more and more vital to establish a positive and strong rapport with every patient. This rapport fosters trust, openness, and ultimately yields better compliance along with improved outcomes. How is this rapport established? How do we get patients to trust us? How do we get patients to listen? How do we improve compliance? And how do we improve patient satisfaction scores?

There is a slew of research on these topics and we have an entire team in our organization to address the last question. The one thing I’d like to highlight in this article is being mindful of how we are communicating and what messages we are sending beyond the surface of our words. We’re communicating all day. We greet, we ask, we explain, we plan, we disclose, we lecture, we theorize, we talk about numerous things with our patients. Patients however only hear a portion of what is being said. To some providers, this can be disconcerting and frustrating. After all, we’ve invested our time, expertise, energy in order to tell the patient something beneficial, so they should readily scoop it all up ... right? Research shows that patients only grasp 20-60% of the information spouted at them, depending on the type and complexity of the information.

Therefore, it is imperative to become increasingly aware of what the patient “hears” beyond our words. Patients “hear” your tone, they “hear” your posture, they “hear” your facial expressions, and most importantly they “hear” your care and concern. In essence, the patient hears your heart. They might not ingest the physiology of their diabetes, or the details of how their beta blocker works; however, they feel your concern and they will inwardly assess your genuine desire to help them at every encounter. From the patient perspective, I believe your concern and your intent speaks volumes above your actual words. Below are a few pointers at sending the intended message to our patients.

  • Fostering a mindset of gratefulness for the opportunity to participate in patient care.
  • Taking inventory to assess our posture, tone, and facial expressions.
  • Being mindful of our own emotions.
  • Be on guard for empathy burnout. (Look into physician well-being resources or burnout prevention tools)
  • Always smile when appropriate.
  • Take a moment of silence when critical/crucial items are being discussed.
  • Don’t be afraid to respectfully verbalize your care and concern for your patient.
  • Most importantly, make sure you’ve listened to the patient. When patients feel like they were able to share their story and make their voice heard, they will instantly gravitate to your advice and trust you as their physician.

It is very true that physicians must be sharp, knowledgeable, adaptable, and confident in our ability to administer care. These are great qualities that are imperative for good care and they are certainly expected of us. We must know the science of medicine and yet balance this with the “art” of medicine. Patients feel your care and concern beyond what you are saying. Once they know you care, they will trust you and this establishes strong rapport. One of the most potent ways to demonstrate this care is by taking a moment to listen.

We live in a culture that often breeds distrust, dis-union, and apathy. However, when it comes to being a qualified and well-rounded physician, we must not allow the noise of the culture to overwhelm our desire to uphold the totality of the Hippocratic Oath.

“I will remember that there is an art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife of the chemist’s drug.”

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