Why one doctor recommends asking patients the name of their dog

Asking about specific details about a patient's life—such as the name of their dog—allows a doctor to see the actual person behind the gown and for patients to see the person behind the white coat. (Getty/Capuski)

On the first day of his residency, Taimur Safder, M.D., had a patient who was admitted for chest pain after walking his dog.

But Safder was perplexed when his attending physician asked him if he knew the name of that patient’s dog.

Back at the patient’s bedside, he found out the dog was named Rocky.

“And there followed a brief conversation that was more colorful than any other I’d had with a patient that day. It led to a transformation I did not fully appreciate at the time: there was an actual person behind that hospital-issued gown,” wrote Safder, a cardiology fellow at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, in a New England Journal of Medicine perspective piece.

RELATED: Relationships top predictor of patient loyalty

It's those conversations about dogs or the plot line of a Spanish soap opera or a beloved child or a pie recipe that allow doctors to earn the trust of their patients and see them as people, Safder said. 

Equally, it’s also a way for patients to see the person behind the white coat, he says.

RELATED: Communicate empathetically with patients for better satisfaction scores, researchers say

“It is easy to lose sight of yourself during residency, as you endure the countless hours spent in windowless rooms entering data in electronic medical records or completing administrative tasks or juggling a dozen other competing priorities. But if I may offer one piece of advice to my new colleagues who don a long white coat for the first time each July: Make sure to get the name of the dog,” he writes.

His advice is backed up by research. Effective, empathetic communication with patients makes them much more satisfied with their care experience, researchers seeking the "secret" to patient satisfaction found.

In fact, improving communication skills is good for both providers and patients. Physicians with good relationship skills have lower rates of burnout, experience greater job enjoyment and can use the skills in building relationships with their colleagues and staff, according to doctors at Hawaii Pacific Health, which has used a checklist and a coaching program to improve doctors’ communication skills.