Better Doctor-Patient Communication

One of the scariest places to go is the doctor’s office. Just think about how often we postpone the inevitable or drag our kicking, screaming children – or spouses – to the person in the white coat.

One of the scariest places to go is the doctor’s office. Just think about how often we postpone the inevitable or drag our kicking, screaming children – or spouses – to the person in the white coat.

Why might this be?

Doctors exist to help us and heal us. However, our brains work overtime, dwelling on all the things we might discover while at the doctor’s. We could walk out of there with life-altering, possibly earth-shattering, information. Since our doctors deliver news about the course of our lives, they should be able to make the process as easy as possible.

Wouldn’t it be nice if their body language conveyed, “Everything is going to be alright. I am here to help not hurt – to comfort, not to judge" ? I first recognized the importance of how a doctor communicates non-verbally when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rallying behind my incredible, smart, strong mother (who, I might add, is a nurse – and is therefore well-acquainted with doctors’ offices), I took her to visit the first of many doctors. I certainly don’t need a doctor to sugarcoat the diagnosis, but imagine my dismay when we were not only handed discouraging news, but presented with the details of my mother’s situation as though the doctor was reading from a script, not encountering a terrified family.

Because I deal in body language for a living, I was immediately struck by this particular doctor’s bedside manner – or distinct lack thereof. His body language told me that he was obviously emotionally and physically closed off from the situation at hand. He did not make any attempt to connect with his patient or with her family. He did not make any attempt to help her deal with her fears. In short, this doctor was cold, unfriendly and strictly business. Meanwhile, he was discussing the intimacies of my mother’s body, the disease she was up against, and the fears and concerns of her entire family. Needless to say, my mother was crushed. And I was furious.

Before we even got to the elevator, I knew we wouldn’t be back. There had to be a better way. There had to be someone out there was going to look into our faces and be able to relate to us on a different level. I didn’t care what news they had to deliver. Whatever they had to say, they could say it with empathy and compassion.

Our second doctor’s visit was on the other end of the spectrum. This doctor was warm, friendly, understanding. I distinctly remember a moment when my mother sat on the patient bed, in her lovely paper gown, trembling. The doctor came in, lowered the stool before my mother, and took a seat. He was making sure that she was looking down at him, and not the other way around.

In that moment, he gave her power back. It’s a simple gesture, the leveraging of one’s body to indicate who is in control: not the doctor, but my mother. A doctor may have an Ivy League medical degree – but the patient controls the direction of her treatment, and subsequently, her life.

Patient advocate Trisha Torrey shared a similar experience: “My doctor was in a huge hurry. I so sick that I couldn’t keep my head up. She rushed me from the room, telling me, ‘I need to get something. I’ll be back in a minute.’ And then I never saw her again. In this case, despite the fact that she had disappeared, my primary care doctor was shouting, ‘I’m too busy for you. I don’t care if you have questions. You’re going to have to figure this out for yourself.’” In these cases, body language was an amazingly effective tool of communication.

Across the globe, doctors hold an important and critical place in our lives. They can make us feel confident in our abilities to care for ourselves, or they can crush our self-esteem. They can make us hopeful or hopeless. Their ability to communicate, and the manner in which they do so, is one of the most pertinent factors in the patient-doctor relationship. It can make or break a doctor’s visit. In some instances, it can determine a patient’s success.

Advice for doctors: Take a non-aggressive stance with patients. Remember why you began your practice in the first place. Remember the doctor’s heart that you vowed to never deviate from, the heart and empathy that you would always have for each and every patient.

Think of when you are sick and must see a doctor: How do you feel when you are waiting to hear the updated news of your condition? What runs through your mind as you glance over at the nurses holding the compilation of your health files – files that chronicle the story of your life as it pertains to your well being. What is it that you hope to find when you meet with your physician?

Positivity? Grace? Humility and respect? You betcha.

These very qualities that you expect from your doctor are the very ones that your patients expect from you. Don’t be surprised that your smile, your hug and your comforting gestures make all the difference. 

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