Two physician-patient relationship factors that transcend time

Almost every business, regardless of the industry, is about relationships. It doesn't matter whether the business is making widgets or washing cars; our society depends on people helping one another in some fashion. And almost universally, we get and give what we want and need more reliably in the context of solid relationships.

Healthcare represents the epitome of this philosophy, in my opinion, especially for physician practices.

The $64,000 question remains, though, as to how physicians can forge great relationships with patients they may see for an hour total (or far less) over the course of a year?

For some physicians, the answer has been to change their business model to free themselves of time constraints and other traditional-practice problems. But let's set that possibility aside for a moment, and talk about factors other than time. I'm not saying that time isn't important or is anything less than a huge factor in how people interact. I'm just taking it off the table for this particular exercise.

I came across a couple of articles this week that offer some powerful insights into what makes doctor-patient interactions meaningful:

Sweating the small stuff. You might not be able to effect major changes in the healthcare system itself that cause patients (and your practice) frustration and distress, but small gestures truly can have a big impact. A recent article from Australian oncologist Ranjana Srivastava, M.D., concurs, describing profound gratitude among patients for whom she's able to spare just a little grief, even if it has nothing to do with saving their life. "It is practically impossible for a lone doctor to scale the systemic barriers to better care," she wrote in the Guardian. "But I can't help observing that good patient care often comes from sweating the small stuff. Like calling in a favour, relaying results on the Friday before a long weekend, pulling out an unnecessary catheter, sparing someone a midnight blood draw and calling a distressed relative." While it's true that these efforts take time, in some cases it's more a matter of simply spending it sooner rather than later.

Letting go. The other day I was at a lake with my family, and I overheard another mother trying to teach her preschool-age son to float. "It's not so much something you do," she explained to the boy, "so much as you just let it happen." Despite the growing popularity of the term "active listening" to describe the way physicians should tune into patients, actual examples of the technique being used show it needn't be rigorous. Rather, it seems that simply not talking as much is the main way we all can let better listening happen. "Doctors are used to giving something to the patient, 'whether it's advice or skills or recommendations, a prescription, a diagnosis, a treatment plan, a referral,' " Joji Suzuki, M.D., of Partners HealthCare in Boston, explained in a recent article for WBUR's CommonHealth about motivational interviewing (MI). In an anecdote describing MI at work, it seems that Suzuki's style isn't so much interview-like as it is knowing how to recognize his opening. In this case, it was a patient's mention that she had in the past quit smoking for five years. That was his moment, and only then did he probe: "Something happened, and you made a decision to stop," he said to the patient--thus opening the door wider for the person's intrinsic motivators to reveal themselves. The story doesn't say whether this revelation took five minutes or an hour, but it's probably safe to say it wouldn't have happened at all if the doctor had interrupted his patient after 18 seconds as research has shown many do.

While these ideas certainly can't cure all of the obstacles that impede physician-patient communication and relationships, time's-a-wasting the longer you wait to try them. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)