Your choice of words matters. Here’s what to say to patients—and what not to say

“A doctor’s ability to explain, listen, and empathize has a profound impact on a patient’s care,” stated the New York Times. Yet the Times found that a startling two out of every three patients are discharged from the hospital without even knowing their diagnosis, and that 60 percent of patients misunderstood their doctor’s instructions after a visit.

The words you do—or don’t—use in the exam room can have a big impact on patient education, engagement, and satisfaction. Here are our top tips for improving doctor-patient communication.

DO make small talk.

When you walk into the exam room, greet the patient by name and make eye contact. Rather than jumping right into the reason for the visit, “engage in some general conversation to help the patient feel at ease,” wrote Sue Larsen of Astute Doctor Education, Inc., in Physicians Practice. This goes a long way toward making the patient feel valued—decreasing the likelihood of communication problems and even malpractice lawsuits.

DON’T interrupt.

After you ask or confirm why the patient is there, give the person at least two minutes to talk before jumping in. Studies have shown that on average, doctors wait just 18 seconds before interrupting a patient.

Showing patients empathy is as simple as a few well-chosen words: “I hear you. You’re in the right place. Thank you.”

DO show empathy.

Evidence shows that many patients consider empathy the number-one quality of a good doctor. Showing empathy is as simple as a few well-chosen words. “I reassure that the patient is in the right place for their medical concern. I eliminate comments that suggest frustration with the EMR. I thank the patient for entrusting their care to me,” wrote Laurence Kinsella, M.D., on KevinMD.com.

DON’T turn your back on patients.

Speaking of EMRs or EHRs, studies have shown that patient satisfaction scores can take a hit when doctors spend more time looking at their screens than their patients. Consider following the POISED model, developed by a doctor to reinforce good exam-room computer-use. “After a few minutes of listening, I ask [patients’] permission to look away and take some notes on the screen,” wrote Dr. Kinsella.

DO consider your patient education method.

It may be falling short. The New York Times found that according to one study, “in over 60 percent of cases, patients misunderstood directions after a visit to their doctor’s office.” Text-based materials often don’t take into account health literacy or visual learners. That’s why video is a better bet. A recent study found that spoken animation is the best way to communicate complex health information to people of all health literacy levels.

“I was overcomplicating things. Words like ‘refractive,’ ‘accommodative,’ or even ‘ocular’ are just not words that register with most people.” – Ryan Corte, O.D.

DON’T use jargon.

To test how effectively he was educating his patients, Ryan Corte, O.D., role-played various patient scenarios with his family and friends. “I was completely surprised by how much I was overcomplicating things. Words like ‘refractive,’ ‘accommodative,’ or even ‘ocular’ are just not words that register with most people,” he discovered. Simple, visual, narrated videos make patient education easy and effective.

DO ask if you addressed all of the patient’s questions.

Dr. Kinsella ends all patient visits with the question: “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” (Note: Don’t ask this with your hand already on the doorknob.) “Most of the time, the patient gratefully acknowledges that all questions have been answered,” he wrote. If the idea of this makes you sweat, encourage patients to make a list of their concerns in advance of their appointment to help you stay on schedule.

DON’T dismiss patients’ concerns.

“Don’t worry about that right now” or “That’s to be expected when you’re older/overweight/etc.” may seem like harmless comments to you, but to patients these can be interpreted as dismissive or disrespectful, wrote Ryan Gray, M.D., on MDMag.com. “Minimizing your patient’s concerns is dangerous. If you treat your patients as though their concerns are trivial, they will be unlikely to share important information with you in the future.”

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