How to create a patient-friendly atmosphere

Better communication creates better health care

There are many changes staff at physician practices can make to ensure their office is patient friendly, says Janet Ohene-Frempong, MS, president of JO Frempong & Associates, a plain-language and cross-cultural communications consulting firm based in Elkins Park, PA. She recommends health care providers in a clinical setting examine their practice in four areas suggested by the Chicago-based American Medical Association.

1. General attitude

Are the office staff friendly, helpful, and respectful of patients? Do they make patients feel comfortable? Ohene-Frempong says it is not enough to be helpful — staff must enjoy helping people. Health care providers should set the tone by example and make sure staff members are well trained.

2. Scheduling appointments

When people telephone the office, it’s important to have a person answer rather than a machine, says Ohene-Frempong. If they are making an appointment, only the essential information should be gathered on the phone. Also, directions to the office location need to be clear. Instead of telling people to drive south on a certain roadway, she suggests staff use landmarks when giving patients directions. Tell the person what he/she should bring to the appointment, always keeping in mind that some patients may have low health literacy skills. For example, if a list of medications is required, tell patients they can bring a written list or, if they don’t feel like writing the information down, to put their medications in a bag and bring them.

3. Office check-in procedures

Provide forms in an easy-to-read format, suggests Ohene-Frempong. It’s a good idea to provide assistance with completing forms for patients who might have difficulty.

4. Referrals and ancillary tests

"Look at the instructions you are giving people and look for opportunities to make them more clear, because the potential for misunderstanding pre-procedural instructions is significant," says Ohene-Frempong. It’s important to be specific when writing instructions. For example, if people should not eat or drink after midnight, make it clear. Write: "Do not eat or drink after midnight."

While physician’s offices may not be able to implement all the improvements Ohene-Frempong suggests, it is good to discuss all elements of a patient-friendly practice to determine what would work and what wouldn’t work in each office.