Consider the perks of praising, thanking patients

We write a lot about how physicians can deal with the downsides of patient care, from rude behavior to outright deceit. We also spend a lot of time telling you how to treat your patients better and make their lives easier.

But I came across an article in a tiny newspaper recently that offers a viewpoint, which, as a patient and a health writer, strikes me as beautifully refreshing: patient appreciation. In this local newspaper column from Mercer Island, Wash., internist Julie Thomas, M.D., lists 10 items she appreciates about patients.

Although those of us who advise practices are constantly urging you to think of yourselves as a business, it's noteworthy that not one of Thomas's objects of gratitude include the patient's checkbook or credit card.

Rather, she talks about patient's preparedness--bringing lists, asking questions--thus attempting to debunk a common perception that doctors don't like it when patients are too engaged in their care. "One might think that doctors cringe when patients pull out 'the list' of their concerns and questions," she writes. "On the contrary: this adds great efficiency and still helps us to be complete in what we do. The last thing a doctor wants is for a patient to go home and worry about something they forgot to ask us."

And according to one of this week's top stories revealing that at least 150,000 patients each year potentially fall victim to a misdiagnosis at a physician's office, she's got a valid point. As David Newman-Toker from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore suggested in an invited commentary on the study, physicians are not magicians. They have a lot of information to process in relatively little time. But it's the lack of critical or relevant information that can really cause a problem.

Most of the missed diagnoses stemmed from the doctor not getting an accurate patient history, according to the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. As a result, Newman-Toker told Reuters Health that patients should "not just assume that once the diagnosis has happened the first time, that everything is said and done and that it's all over. You just can't have blind obedience to the doctor's diagnosis."

In a related idea, Thomas' column also expressed appreciation for patients' knowledge. In other words, she doesn't mind when they do some research on the Internet. "I don't always know the 'latest and greatest' developments in medicine," she writes." My patients are well-informed, and not uncommonly alert me to something I need to research or bone up on."

Again, if a good physician-patient dialogue is happening, the likelihood of patients acting on an incorrect self-diagnosis they found on Google is reduced as well. If the patient brings in the printout, as cumbersome as it may seem, a dangerous disconnect is diminished.

Another important appreciation Thomas shared is self-discipline. "I have seen many patients shed pounds, shake off cigarettes, trim down on alcohol consumption and put on those sneakers day after day," she writes.

Instead of focusing on the segment of patients who don't follow doctors' advice, Thomas turns the table and praises those who do make remarkable changes.

It's always nice to see someone give credit where it's due. And while my only expertise in affecting behavior change comes from raising small children, maybe the strategy of praising good behavior to encourage more of it could be effective with adults, too.

At the very least, I'm guessing it can't hurt.

So my assignment for you this week is to give thanking your patients a try. Think about the things they do to make your job easier and more fulfilling. Let me know if you notice any positive change in the way your patients or your stress level respond. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)