As a doctor, you see a lot of patients on a daily basis and listening to them is important. This enables you to determine their needs and preferences, such as what type of medication they require or what to do if a treatment does not seem to be effective. While communicating well with patients is vital to your medical career, it is easy to get caught in the shuffle and “zone out”. If your patients are not coming back for their follow-up appointments, if they are not following your instructions or if they are not fully open to communicating their health-related concerns with you, then they may feel as though they are not being heard.
Studies have shown that once patients start to talk, doctors tend to interrupt them after around 17 seconds. Why is this so? Signs that you are not listening to your patients include the following:
- You are rushing through your patient appointments – Most doctors have around 15 minutes to spend with each patient so you may be rushing to make it to every one of your patient appointments for the day.
- You are distracted by electronic devices – In today’s day and age, electronic devices can be rather distracting, especially in healthcare. For instance, updating electronic health records on a computer or pulling up and viewing electronic charts may cause you to skip through talking directly to your patients.
- You have a different agenda – Some patients may come into your office with countless pieces of health-related information that they have read online- most offering a ‘self-diagnosis’. However, with limited time, your objective is to zero in on the main health-related concern.
- You ask questions from a checklist – You may find that instead of patients’ taking their time to tell their stories and what they have read online, it is easier to ask sample questions from a checklist and make conclusions based on their given answers.
- You advise the performance of unnecessary tests – With limited time to listen to each patient’s story, sometimes it may be easier for you to order x-ray examinations or blood tests in order to make accurate diagnoses. Today, more of an emphasis is put on technology as opposed to listening skills.
- You dismiss their symptoms – In more than 50% of cases, patients complain of symptoms, such as fatigue or dizziness, that cannot be diagnosed or rather identified through lab tests. For this reason, without medical evidence, you may dismiss a patient’s concerns and tell them that it is all in their head.
If a patient feels as if you are not listening to them, they may say something like “I know that you are very busy and short on time, but I’d appreciate if you could hear me out…” or “you seem very busy today, should I reschedule my appointment?” They may even be direct and say “it seems as if you are distracted and not listening to me”. Any of these statements should be enough to open your eyes and make you realize that you should be doing a better job of listening to your patients and responding to their questions and concerns.
At times, you may have patients who are easy to talk to and who understand your instructions; however, other times, you may have more difficult patients. So, what can you do in such instances? You have most likely come across the common phrase - “it is not what you say, but how you say it” - meaning that your tone of voice is of great importance when it comes to expressing yourself so that the other individual will understand you in a good way. In this particular case, actively listening to your patients and responding appropriately leads to better understanding, thus allowing you to make better informed decisions for your patients and provide them with the best care.
Here are some ways in which you can improve the way you listen to your patients:
- Do not interrupt – Allow each patient to express him or herself in their own way. Perhaps by listening to a patient’s individual story, you will be able to gain a better sense of their needs, preferences, feelings, concerns, as well as anticipate their questions.
- Do not be too quick to answer – There are times when your patients will wish to share their thoughts, feelings, and struggles with you, their doctor. In such instances, every patient wants to feel respected and to be taken seriously. Do not rush to reply to their feelings as they may feel as if you are dismissing them too quickly. “Listening skills are critical when trying to assess patient personalities or any patient aspects for that matter. Give plenty of time for the patient to answer questions. Ask open-ended questions—not questions that can merely be answered with a Yes or No. Ask ‘Can you tell me a little more about that?’ and then be still. Don’t give the impression of being in a rush—even though you probably are!” said Karyn Buxman, a neurohumorist and founder of LevityWorks.com.
- Pay attention to their tone – Pay close attention to a patient’s tone when they are talking to you. Perhaps a sad or angry tone on their end may indicate an underlying mental health issue. Moreover, when you are responding a patient’s story or even providing them with health-related instructions, put them at ease by getting them to relax and feel comfortable in their surroundings.
- Organize your office – If your office is completely organized and clutter free, you can be sure to avoid and prevent any distractions. Moreover, when a patient is through talking, your office supplies, equipment, and patient information that you require will be easily accessible to you.
- Listen with a purpose – Keep in mind what a patient’s main frustration or concern is. Through active listening, you can assess their medical story and current health. Moreover, through open communication, you can display to the patient that you are truly listening and that you thoroughly understand them.
- Ask for feedback – There is always room for improvement. Ask patients for their thoughts and opinions on your listening skills and communication skills. By refining care to the highest level, you can provide your patients with the best care and educate them in a way that will raise health awareness.
At the workplace, active listening means making eye contact, paying attention, acknowledging each patient’s story, using body language to express your undivided attention, providing feedback, asking for feedback, as well as responding appropriately. Often times, patients may feel reluctant to ask questions out of fear of judgment, worry, nervousness - and such feelings are far too common. 90% of medical errors occur when a patient does not speak up or when their thoughts, concerns, and feelings are dismissed. As a healthcare professional, it is your duty to notice patients’ comments and reactions. You have the opportunity to get them to share their hesitations so that you can adhere to their care plan. This is also known as effective listening and it can lead to fewer medical errors and less wasted valuable time.
The bottom line is that all patients want to be understood, respected, validated, and feel appreciated. They look up to you, their doctor, for your opinions on diagnosis and medication, ideas for treatment, as well as simple notions to show that you are on their side. “The patient reminded me that though we can cure diseases sometimes, we can relieve suffering always, often with nothing more than a kind word, a gently touch or a warm smile” said Peter Pronovost, director of the Armstrong Institute and senior vice president for patient safety and quality at John Hopkins Medicine. The doctor patient balance is built on mutual trust, understanding, knowledge, and respect. The more comfortable and safe a patient feels with you and the more they feel that you genuinely care about their well-being, the more likely it is that they will abide by your treatment plan and feel empowered to maintain their own care.