Cultivating Positive Provider and Patient Relationships

In our modern digital age, where word-of-mouth marketing spreads far beyond neighborhoods and local communities, building strong relationships with patients is crucial. How a provider engages with patients has a significant impact on the wellness of healthcare. Not to mention future career opportunities. Whether in permanent practice or on locum tenens assignments, bedside manner matters. But where do you start? Check out our tips for creating successful connections both in person and online.

Improve personal interactions.

Successful patient outcomes are more rewarding than “being liked.” In a competitive healthcare market, it's important to maintain your clients' trust and respect. Here are some suggestions for improving your interactions with patients:

  • Greet everyone with a smile. It's simple, but a smile goes a long way when meeting a patient for the first time or caring for one you've known for 20 years. A friendly handshake can make a great impression as well.

  • Get to know your patients' interests. It's always flattering when someone you haven't seen in months remembers something personal about you. Asking about hobbies, recent vacations, or family goes a long way to making your patients feel special.

  • Call patients by name. In the groundbreaking book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie stated, “a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Decades later, this statement still rings true. Before you walk into an exam room, look at your patient's chart and say his name a few times so you remember it. If you're not sure how to pronounce the name, ask him or her to clarify and write down the pronunciation for the next visit.

  • Make eye contact. Even if you're busy recording information on a chart or typing, it's important to acknowledge your patient and make eye contact as much as possible so she knows you're listening and focused on her. This is especially important when you discuss diagnoses and treatment options, as it will also help you know whether you're communicating clearly.

  • Take your time. It's the nature of your practice to be running behind or to have patients who show up late or don't show up at all, but try not to make your appointments feel rushed. Answer patient questions without getting in a hurry, and avoid looking at your watch or seeming distracted.

  • Don't use too much jargon. You'll quickly lose your patient's attention and trust if you speak in acronyms and don't take the time to explain prescriptions or treatments in a simpler way. Be friendly and straightforward when you speak to your patients and provide notes if you worry they'll forget instructions later.

Assert yourself as a physician.

The doctor is still the doctor. As well informed as a patient may try to be, she does not have all the answers. Learning how to say no, or redirect a patient's opinion, is a skill developed over time.

Check out these tips for having difficult conversations with patients.

  • Be firm. There will be times when you have to call upon your authority as a medical expert, and you have plenty of resources at your fingertips. If you recommend a patient try a specific treatment and they believe otherwise, reference clinical studies, best practices and other research to help him make an informed decision.

  • Show empathy. Sometimes simply showing compassion and empathizing with a patient can clear up misunderstandings and improve a stressful situation. If you feel you and your patient are on bad terms, try to understand what she is experiencing and the pressure of being ill or caring for a loved one who's ill.

  • Talk about alternatives. One way to help a patient understand the treatment you're suggesting is to discuss possible alternatives and their associated risks and side effects. After talking about other choices, your patient may decide to go forward with your original suggestion — or he may decide another option is best. In either case, providing your patient with more information increases trust and helps you better understand each other.

  • Explain your reasons for a preferred treatment. In their hurry to help patients and prescribe medication or remedies that will help them feel better, physicians sometimes neglect to explain why they suggested them in the first place. Taking a few minutes to talk about why you prefer a specific treatment or the outcomes you've seen in others can help you reestablish your credibility and greatly improve your relationship with your patient.

Determine what your patients want.

You might be surprised to learn that cost isn't always what drives patients to find a new doctor. Here are a few things patients value most in a primary care provider:

  • Convenience. Patients are willing to go to a different physician, or even see a PA or NP instead, if he or she has an office closer to work or home and can see them at a convenient time.

  • Customer service. If they encounter rude staff or a doctor who doesn't provide satisfactory care, patients are more likely to switch primary care providers. A new physician in the area doesn't generally drive new business away from your practice.

  • Communication. There's nothing worse for a patient than not knowing an outcome, a lab result, or what to do next. You, along with your clinic and staff, must evolve to meet patients' needs, and this may mean changing the way you communicate with them. While you may not want to personally text your patients, don't be afraid to discuss your preferences for communication and make some compromises.

Use technology to enhance your practice.

With Fitbits, Apple watches, and online reviews, it's easy for patients to look up doctors, check their own conditions and keep track of their fitness, eating and even sleeping habits. So, why not use these tools to your advantage in your practice?

  • Encourage patients to be active in their healthcare. Instead of dismissing those who google their symptoms, ask your patients to visit credible sources and do further research once they've had an appointment. They may have more questions for you, but you'll feel better knowing they're actively managing their own health.

  • Keep an eye on your online reviews. While it's not necessary to check your physician reviews every day, or respond to them, since this can sometimes backfire or cause privacy violations, it's a good idea to look at them about once a month to see what patients are saying about you. Take feedback with a grain of salt; most people who write reviews had either a great or horrible experience and wanted to share it publicly. However, you may be able to make changes to your practice based on the reviews you receive and improve it for existing and future patients.

  • Take control of your personal brand. When is the last time you had a professional photo taken, either in a lab coat or business attire? If you were still in residency, it's time for a new one. Along with a current photo of yourself, make sure your biography has been updated and that your website and social media channels reflect your practice and are as professional as possible.

No matter what technology you're using, always remember that it's the personal touch that matters most as a physician. Your patients will appreciate your efforts to engage them during appointments, better communicate with them and help them make the right healthcare choices. And while you can't control everything posted about your care, remembering these behaviors, tactics, and principles can keep you more highly rated, which makes your career opportunities that much stronger.

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