Medical series: Building better doctor-patient relations

“Could it be strep throat?” I asked as I shifted from side to side, not feeling well, on one of those exam beds in a doctor’s office which some designer tried to make look like a lounge chair, but ends up looking like a sanitary torture device. “No, it’s not strep” said the doctor, not looking up and continuing to write.  I realized at this point that I had to be a little more aggressive, even though I was  not feeling well. “Then what is it?” I asked.

This was a game this particular doctor and I played a lot. She was by far one of the best doctors I had ever had, but her one weakness was how she answered questions. She answered exactly the question that was asked. Nothing more and nothing else.

Building Better Doctor-Patient Relations

I know it’s been said a million times already in seminars, blogs, books, and schools across the country, but this is yet another reminder for doctors out there: listen for what your patients are really asking instead of what they do ask. In my case above, my real question was “What’s wrong with me?” but because I had already been trying to sort it out in my head on my own, it came out much differently.

Sometimes the patients are passive-aggressive and that’s why they ask the question the way they do. Or, the patient could be more like me and be very logical in nature. Logical patients are going to try to figure it out on their own, get as far as they can down the road of a conclusion and then ask the question.

Regardless of why they do it, some patients won’t ask what they really want to ask or say what they really need to say. That’s why it’s so critical for doctors to slow down, and really think about what the patient is saying and then have a conversation from there.

More patients = More money?

With rising healthcare costs, rising office costs, etc., doctors feel pressure to serve a significant amount of patients every day to make money. The calculation, to many doctors, seems simple. More patients = more money. On the other hand, there are doctors offering concierge services where, for an annual fee, they agree to take fewer patients and devote as much time to you as you need. Their formula looks more like: less patients paying more money each = more money. Both of these formulas are at the extreme and both are riddled with issues, which we won’t go into in this post.

The point is, as with many things, the correct answer lies somewhere between the two and is the same as with any business; take on only as many customers as you can treat well. Any more than that, you’ll get unhappy customers and that will reduce your marketing effectiveness and your ability to recruit new patients.

How to Listen

So we’ve established a business reason for taking time to listen to patients and I’m hoping anyone that reads this understands the personal reasons for doing so, but how do you do it? Luckily, you already know how, it’s just taking the time to do it and having someone like me remind you:

  • Slow down and really take the time to listen to the patient.
  • Ask yourself not only what the patient asked, but what may be their underlying question or concern.
  • Ask probing questions and encourage the patient to talk.
  • Even though you think information may be irrelevant, still take time to listen to it. There might be something hidden in that information that can help you diagnose or treat the patient.

Now go forth and really listen! 🙂

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