Demand for quality customer service has seen a dramatic increase in many industries over the past several years, and medicine is no exception. While the medical community often cringes when faced with the terms "customer," or "health care consumer," it's time to realize that patients are indeed customers who demand physicians and staff who are responsive, reliable, and empathetic. If patient expectations are not met, these value-conscious consumers will go elsewhere for their health care. As a result, attitudes about patient communications are more important than ever.
Attitudes show up physically before you even begin to speak. Facial expressions, eye contact (or lack of it), and posture all communicate your feelings about patients. Keep in mind these three simple techniques:
- Display an attitude of helpfulness and respect.
Have an appropriate expression on your face, perhaps a smile or a look of concern. Look the patient in the eye, and sit or stand erect. These acts convey to the patient that you are friendly, confident, and willing to help them resolve whatever issue comes up. No matter how you feel inside, deliberately display a helpful, respectful attitude on the outside, and maintain that attitude throughout the conversation.
- Think positive thoughts about your job, your patients, and your skills.
We all have voices inside our head that are constantly measuring the positives and negatives of every situation. This voice probably tells you all sorts of negative things like how awful Mrs. Jones is to talk to, or how terrible it is that these people won't pay their bills. Turn off that negative voice! Instead, choose to hear comments like these: "Mrs. Jones needs a little more understanding than some other patients do," or "I'm good at helping people work out ways to pay their bills."
The impact of thinking positively about our skills, our patients, and ourselves is amazing. And the impact on the patient when you smile and present yourself with confidence and competence is very powerful. Patients won't argue as much with a person who appears to be in control.
- Use a calm, confident, and respectful tone of voice.
To add to your powerful image, control the tone of your voice. Communication research has shown that much of what we communicate is interpreted through tone of voice. You can use the same words with different tones and mean very different things. Think of this phrase: "You'll have to see the doctor before he'll renew your prescription, Mrs. Jones." You can sound sarcastic, impatient, bored, or concerned and helpful. Consider the impact of these tones and the reaction that you're likely to get as a result.
Remember, that while you can't control the patients' response, you can influence it. If that influence is positive, it will reduce significantly the level of negative response you get in return. Avoid the temptation to sound parental, sarcastic, or bullying. Likewise, don't sound weak or hesitant. If the patient becomes upset or angry, and you feel your defensiveness rising, slow down, take several deep breaths, and regain your control. Focus on responding calmly, rather than reacting defensively.
TMA Practice E-tips main page