After Rounds
Doctor Talks With Patient

Make Early Patient Interactions Count

Early patient interactions are the foundation of physician-patient relationships. So take a thoughtful approach, from setting the tone to providing value.

While every patient interaction matters, early encounters play a crucial role in cementing trust in the physician-patient relationship. They can impact who returns to your clinic or how well they follow your recommendations, two factors on which the stability of any medical practice depends.

Making early patient interactions count comes from your ability to set the right tone, emphasize your investment in the patient and demonstrate your knowledgeability as a doctor. Patients aren’t just affected by these factors during their visit — they’re sharing them online as well, which could determine whether potential patients decide to come to you in the first place.

Here’s how to perfect that crucial first impression.

Set the Right Tone

Your relationship with your patients starts before they even set foot in your office. Today, patients are finding their physicians online before ever meeting them, and your online presence provides a glimpse of who you are as a physician. Be sure to provide enough information online to give patients a sense of your experience and personality. Whether you focus on social media or a standalone website, your most important task is to draw attention to a culture of patient-centered care.

Once a patient has arrived, it’s important to promote the feeling that you two are on the same team. The once-paternalistic style of medicine has gone by the wayside, and early patient interactions ought to instead reflect a sense of partnership. The tone of the first meeting should be cordial and set the stage for the open exchange of information. While in some cases humor can help create a provider-patient connection, as the Journal of Forensic Nursing notes, it can also set the stage for harmful misunderstandings.

Ask what your patients would like to be called and be sure to commit this to memory. Above all, practice active listening, using your body language to invite your patient to play an active role in their own care. While electronic medical records often mean that you’re typing during early patient interactions, make an effort to physically turn yourself toward your patient while making eye contact. And remember that expectations might be different across patient demographics; for example, one study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Education found that older patients may feel less comfortable with the use of smartphones during appointments.

Encourage these positive habits among your clinic staff as well in order to create a united message of patient-centered care that’s evident from your patients’ arrival in the clinic to the end of their visit. Do what you can to provide a pleasant waiting area, and offer privacy whenever possible before patients have been roomed in, even when protected health information isn’t being discussed.

Invest in Your Patients’ Care

Your early interactions should highlight your investment in your new patients’ health. To emphasize your interest in your patients’ well-being, ask clarifying questions, conduct a detailed social history and explore health decisions in a nonjudgmental manner. Not only does this create robust documentation for your patient visits, but it also gives you clearer insight into the person who has chosen to share intimate aspects of their life with you.

Listen for bits of personal information, from your patients’ favorite fishing spots to the names of their children. Paying attention to these details is the mark of an experienced physician; it’s how a family doctor who is widely recommended within the community would act.

Caring about these details isn’t just about establishing a long-term partnership with your patient, though — it also gives you more insight into their health. As in clinical assessments where small details may inform a diagnosis, minute or seemingly immaterial facts about a patient’s life may provide important information about them as patients. Understand that other family members may inform their health habits. Understand that their community will often determine their ability to follow through on health recommendations. Understand that their socioeconomic situation may affect the resources they have available to make health changes.

Provide Medical Value

Once you’ve been invited into a patient’s life, treat the interaction with respect and avoid medical jargon. Use evidence-based medicine and highlight the value of research-informed methods in your interactions with your patients.

Encourage the families you see to bring their questions to you at each visit, including those that come from information they find online or through other sources. Support your patients’ curiosity about their healthcare, but always bring the conversation back to evidence-based practice. Offer to look further into topics that may be out of your usual scope and direct them to reputable sources for more information. If you’re using a website for your practice to give medical advice, share the source of these recommendations, particularly when they’re highlighted by your medical specialty organizations.

Finally, show that you keep up to date with the latest recommendations for your specialty. Medicine is an evolving field, and your patients want to know that you’re on the cutting edge.

Make a Long-Term Patient

The goal of an initial visit is for a first assessment as well as a review of clinical history and of social information. But the most important part of it is you and your patient getting to know one another. A little patience, care and attention will plant the seeds for a thriving long-term relationship.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, M.D.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, M.D.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, M.D. is a Streeterville, Chicago-based Pediatric Resident, with interests in Hematology, Oncology, Cardiology and in addressing Health Disparities. She is a researcher and an author, with medical essays published through the AAMC's Aspiring Docs Blog, and in The Oncologist. Her essays focus on highlighting learning points from patient and hospital encounters, while providing advice for pre-medical undergraduates, medical students, and fellow residents. Her work has been highlighted by undergraduate colleges, medical schools, and medical communities from across the country.

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