Stop, look, and listen to your patients’ concerns

Good rapport is the key to better care

Julia Schopick speaks with an evangelist’s zeal when she talks about doctors’ lack of communication with their patients.

And there’s a good reason for it. Schopick, an Oak Park, IL-based consultant who specializes in public relations for professionals, encountered numerous medical specialists and went to hundreds of physician appointments over the last 10 years as her husband, Tim, battled a brain tumor.

"I saw firsthand how physicians treat their patients. In some cases, we were pleased. But in most cases, I was appalled at the way we were treated," says Schopick, owner of Public Relations for Professionals. She is the daughter of a doctor.

Simple human skills, such as listening and treating a patient like a person and not a body part, can make or break a practice today, explains Schopick.

Even if they must be treated within the boundaries of a managed care plan, patients are willing to change physicians if they feel they are being treated like objects and not humans, she says.

And, most lawsuits are prompted by hard feelings the patient or the family has toward the physician, she adds. "People don’t sue someone who is a friend or who was with them at 3 a.m."

When physicians hire Schopick as a public-relations consultant, their initial motivation is to get their names before the public and increase their referrals. However, she maintains that those efforts are virtually useless unless physicians take the time to develop a good relationship with their patients.

That patient is more than an illness

"People know when a doctor thinks of them as a knee and not a person. If a doctor doesn’t listen carefully and respond in a caring manner, the patients won’t develop any loyalty to the doctor," she says.

Physicians’ jobs will be easier if they listen and understand what is going on in the patient’s life, Schopick says. That’s why she cringes when she sees studies that show that the average physician listens for only 18 seconds before interrupting a patient.

"The irony is that with all the publicity these days about physician errors, this one easy-to-remedy problem is not routinely recognized for the culprit it is. When doctors not only spend more time with their patients but really listen to them, we will have truly satisfactory health care," Schopick says.

She says she is a firm believer that good communication is the only way that physicians are going to create a good partnership with their patients. "The more the patient is involved in the treatment, the better the result."

For doctors who feel constrained by managed care, Schopick has this advice: "You really don’t have to see a patient every five minutes."

She advises doctors to talk to their providers and educate them about the necessity of spending more time with each patient. "When somebody takes a new job, they negotiate for all the things they need to do a job. One of the things the doctor needs in order to do his or her job is more time with each patient. The health care system is going to end up paying for it if the diseases aren’t caught," she says.

For instance, if doctors listen and ask appropriate questions, they will know what medications their patients are taking and will avoid prescribing a drug that interacts with them.

Communication with patients can help avoid the myriad tests that are driving up the cost of health care, Schopick says. "In the year 2000, everybody is saying we’ve got to lower costs, but they don’t realize that if they listen, they might be able to avoid some of the costs. Doctors are ordering more tests; patients are experiencing more drug reactions; and it’s all the result of not taking the time with patients."

Schopick offers these tips for improving communication with your patients:

  • Listen to your patients and to their family members.
  • Try to be a little more passive than usual and let the patient talk.
  • "This is hard for doctors. I know some doctors advise patients to write down their three main concerns, but people don’t know what is concerning them, and it is human nature not to mention the main concern until the end [of the visit]."

  • When people are sick, be especially kind, particularly if they have a long-term illness. "These people have been run out, not only by their condition, but you can assume that they have not been treated well by the medical profession," she says.

Be a healer

  • Be open to being a healer. A healer has to be sensitive and willing to take the time to explain, rather than just gruffly issuing a list of to-dos.
  • Realize that patients are becoming more empowered and research-oriented. Look at that empowerment as an opportunity, not a roadblock to treatment.

    "One of my friends who is a doctor says it sometimes makes his life easier when patients come in with research they have done on their condition," Schopick says.

  • Respect the time of your patients and their family members. Make every effort to avoid keeping patients waiting for a long time.
  • Remember that telephone etiquette is as important as face-to-face meetings. Don’t be gruff or abrupt when a patient calls.