How to connect with your patients to truly be heard

It is practically a law of nature that whenever public health officials take a stance on an issue--vaccines, antibiotics, and other drugs, to name a few--physicians find themselves up against a significant uprising of patients who resist or mistrust the advice.

Especially in situations when anxieties run high, such as with invisible threats like radiation or practically anything having to do with our children, there's probably a solid anti-establishment streak in anyone. Sometimes, the easiest path is to just give in. But as we've seen with antibiotic resistance (or in dealings with adults who were never told 'no' as children), that approach comes with widespread consequences.

In matters where you have to stand your ground--and would like to keep your patient--you need to be more to the people who come to you for help than just a voice of authority. While it may seem plain to you that physicians are every bit as human as anyone else, sometimes patients need to be reminded. My kids' pediatrician seems particularly aware of this fact, often making a point to divulge to me certain healthcare decisions she's made for her own child. But it's not even her frank words that lead me to trust her; it's the way she looks me in the eye when she says them.

You want patients to believe you over the Internet or their kooky in-laws? Do all that you can to enhance your interpersonal communication skills and find ways--even if they're not obvious--to demonstrate empathy to patients.

Making this personal connection doesn't necessarily need to add a lot of time, if any, to patient encounters. But given the limits of the face-time physicians have with patients, there are ways to extend this line of communication beyond the office. In general, this means the Internet. Practice websites and, increasingly, social media profiles are fast becoming indispensable tools healthcare organizations can use to put reliable health information in their community's hands.

And while anyone responsible for a provider's online communications must be vigilant about professionalism and protecting patient privacy, these outlets are also a place for patients to see you let your hair down a little. Post pictures of your staff retreat, ask health-trivia questions and think of other ways to have fun with your online presence.

By using these strategies to show patients that you are real, that you have personality, the medical advice you disseminate through this lighter side of your practice may just get through. All practices have to work to get it right, but the best communicators seem to know how to share the right mix of realism, honesty and facts with patients--both face-to-face and online. - Deb