How to Build Patient Trust to Improve the Doctor-Patient Relationship

By Tayla Holman June 27, 2017 Posted in: Article

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The doctor-patient relationship lies at the heart of health care, and patient trust is a fundamental aspect of that relationship. If a patient trusts you and feels like they can be honest with you without judgment, they'll be more likely to provide information that can help you provide better care. But how do you build patient trust? First, you need to know what patients want from their relationship with their doctor. Researchers from George Washington University conducted a "street survey" with that objective in mind. Fifty-one people agreed to an interview and cited "having a doctor who listens to them, who is compassionate and caring, and who explains well" were the most critical aspects of their health care. Here's a deeper dive into some of the important factors to consider when looking to improve the doctor-patient relationship.

Establish a Rapport From the Beginning

One of the most important things providers can do to build patient trust is to establish a great rapport from the beginning, said Jose Arciniega, D.O., a family physician with Dignity Health Medical Group - Inland Empire, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation. "I really try to make the patients understand that I'm really truly here to help them and help them get better," he said. To do that, Dr. Arciniega asks personal questions about family background and daily habits because those factors may affect the patient's health.

Anne-Marie Jackson, M.D., a gynecologist at Dignity Health Medical Group - Dominican, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation, in Santa Cruz, California, agreed that establishing a relationship is integral to building trust. Dr. Jackson said it's important to listen first instead of "launching into some serious conversation."

Limit Interruptions and Distractions

Most doctors only spend about 15 minutes with their patients, so it's important to make the best use of that time. Be sure to put your phone on silent before the visit begins. Taking a call during an appointment may make your patient feel as if they're not a priority. This can cause patients to be guarded, making it difficult to get the information you need.

If the interruption isn't urgent, Dr. Jackson said she will stay with the patient and ask the person interrupting if they can take a message. On the rare occasion that she receives an interruption that isn't avoidable, Dr. Jackson said she asks the patient for permission to leave. "I really feel like whoever's in front of you should also be your priority, and very little is so life or death that you have to leave in that moment," she said.

Dr. Arciniega agrees; if there's a call you've been waiting for, it's important to let the patient know. However, he tells his staff that certain things can wait until the end of the day so he doesn't have to be interrupted during a visit. "You want to make your patient feel like they're the only person in the room," he said.

Be Aware of Body Language

A lot of communication is nonverbal, and body language is one way we communicate without saying a word. One thing you want to be aware of is crossing your legs or arms. While it may be more comfortable to you -- or perhaps it's just cold in your office -- patients might feel like you're being closed off. It can also look imposing, especially if the patient is sitting and you're standing over them with your arms crossed. Try to keep your hands open, too. If you clench your fists, you may look firm and unyielding. Keeping your hands open with the palms up and facing outward can be a more inviting gesture. Smiling and making eye contact are also important, Dr. Jackson said, and you should face your patient during their visit, Dr. Arciniega said. Avoid being on the computer with your back turned, or your patient may feel like you're just trying to get through the visit.

Respect Your Patient's Autonomy

You want to do what's best for your patient, but you also have to respect their autonomy and ability to make informed decisions. For example, if there are several treatment options available, you can present the pros and cons of each and let your patient decide. They may or may not agree with your choice. What's important is that you treat your patient like an equal partner in the decision-making process.

"My point isn't to be there to tell them what to do, but rather to listen first and help them make a decision," Dr. Jackson said. "I spend a lot of time saying that my goal isn't to tell you what to do, but to give you the information you need to make the best decision for yourself."

Check for Accuracy

Before the visit ends, you may want to read your notes and ask your patient if you have the correct information. For example, you may want to read back your notes on your patient's symptoms and ask, "Do I have that right?" They will either correct you or confirm your notes. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, this question not only promotes diagnostic accuracy, but patient satisfaction as well; patients appreciate when you take the time to verify their responses.

You may not see changes in the doctor-patient relationship right away, but don't get discouraged. As you continue to use tactics that can help build patient trust, you may notice that your patients are opening up more and becoming more engaged in the care process.

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