Annoying Habits That Drive Patients Crazy

Morning grumpiness? Checking email three times during dinner? You probably know which of your habits drive your spouse, your kids and even your friends crazy. And maybe your office staff wishes you’d work on your wardrobe selection or interpersonal skills.

How about your interaction with patients? Patient satisfaction is influenced by interaction “intangibles” such as how people (patients) feel about being in the room with you. And you may not even realize how little annoying habits can sour the patient experience.

Often it’s a matter of respect. Perhaps the most critical component in the doctor-patient relationship is a two-way street. Increasingly, revenue and reimbursement is connected with making sure your patients not only respect your expertise but also feel good about having you as their doctor.

So what can you do to raise the likelihood your patients will feel comfortable and cared for in your practice? Like most interpersonal relationships, the day-to-day interactions between doctors and patients can be improved by just paying a bit more attention to what you say and how you say it.

Here are some common ways well-intentioned doctors end up annoying their patients—and some easy tweaks to shift things in a better direction.

Looking at your smartphone, tablet or computer instead of the patient. There’s no question that electronics in the exam room allow doctors to do more, faster and better. But patients feel diminished when a provider spends more time looking at the screen than at them.

The fix: Explain that these devices help provide even better medical care. Look patients in the eye several times during the visit, most especially when discussing serious or sensitive issues. Consider arranging your exam rooms in a way that let you use the computer without turning your back on a patient.  There are more ideas from a doctor in this KevinMD.com article about modern technology.

Working when you are sick. Maybe you feel noble for toughing it out and showing up at work even when you’re not feeling so hot.  Even if you’re not sick, but just appear to be sick, tired or distracted, patients will feel they’re not getting full value from your expertise.

What to do: Stay home. If you can’t stay home, don’t see patients. Better yet, stay home.

Failing to take note of cultural differences.  We’re a heterogeneous society here in America, so look for and apply cultural cues to give your advice and recommendations a more meaningful and practical context.

For example: One family’s kitchen cupboard may look very different from the folks next door. Dietary and lifestyle advice can be more relevant by first asking about the foods the patient typically eats. Concrete examples of healthy eating are better understood in a personal context.

Saccharine sweet talk. Using endearments like “honey,” “sweetie” and “dear” when speaking to patients (even those who are much younger or older than you) is not always endearing. It sounds innocent enough, and in some local regions it’s standard form. While some patients may not notice or care, many people find it demeaning, even if they don’t say so.

What to do instead? Keep your conversations sugar-free. Ask patients how they’d prefer to be addressed and then honor their choice.

Misjudging family dynamics. Family members accompany patients on one third of doctor visits. But one thing about family hierarchy is that they’re all different. It’s not safe to assume who’s in charge.

A better strategy:  If a patient brings a family member to a visit, especially one you’ve not met before, acknowledge the presence of both. Ask all parties present to identify their expectations for the visit—whether it’s to provide support, gather information, share opinions, or all of the above.

Assuming there’s only one point of view – yours.  Most patients want a voice in making decisions about their own health. But only one in seven is confident enough to speak up when they disagree with the doctor, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The solution: Acknowledging that a patient may or may not agree with what you’re saying gives them permission to disagree. Listen to their comments and allow time for questions. The patient’s perspective may or may not be appropriate, but having a dialogue can increase awareness and understanding.

Quantifying patient engagement is increasingly a quantitative measure of success. The Medicare Advantage Plan, as one example, has 23 of the 53 quality measures as bonus-earning stars that focus on patient engagement, specifically how doctors support patient health with screenings, tests, vaccinations and successful management of chronic conditions.

If your patients do well, you’ll do well too—it’s really that simple.

Stewart Gandolf, MBA

About Stewart Gandolf, MBA

Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is both the Publisher of PatientExperience.com and the Co-Founder of Healthcare Success. Stewart has written for dozens of leading healthcare publications and spoken at hundreds of venues on a variety of topics including marketing, reputation management and patient experience. Additionally, he has personally consulted for over 1,500 hospitals and practices. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Stewart worked for leading advertising agencies including J. Walter Thompson.

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