While beginning a new patient’s first appointment by asking why that patient is seeking your services may be the most efficient route to developing his or her treatment plan, such a direct approach can leave your patients feeling brushed off. Now, more than ever, patients want to feel connected to their healthcare providers, and that requires excellent patient communication skills on your part—communication skills that you’ll need to apply before you jump into the clinical stuff. Think about it this way: establishing rapport—and ensuring that your patients feel comfortable—is integral to obtaining patient buy-in, encouraging compliance, fostering retention, achieving optimal outcomes, and garnering word-of-mouth referrals. Isn’t that worth a few extra minutes of your focused attention? Here are six strategies to help you warm up new patients:

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1. Enter the room with care.

First impressions matter, and they can go a long way toward establishing a patient-provider relationship built on trust and respect. In fact, David Pope, PT, believes that the first 60 seconds you spend with a patient “are some of the most important moments” of that patient’s care journey. And everything that happens during that time—including how you enter the patient’s treatment room—factors into the patient’s experience. “Even with time at a premium, walk into the exam room with a smile, shake the patient's hand, call the patient by name (first name or surname, whichever the patient prefers), and sit down,” physician George T. Wolff, MD, explains in this American Family Physician (AAFP) article. “Sitting down places the doctor at eye level or below eye level. This relaxes the patient so that he or she will communicate more openly.”

2. Maintain eye contact.

In this Healthcare Success Article, Neil Baum, MD, seconds Wolff’s emphasis on remaining at eye level: “Standing while the patient remains seated puts you in a dominating position,” he said. “As a result, even though it seems like a subtle distinction, your patient may feel uncomfortable or non-receptive if you are not at the same eye level.” Speaking of eyes, in the aforementioned AAFP article, Ken Davis, MD, recommends using direct but intermittent eye contact (i.e., looking into a patient's eyes without making it creepy) to help forge an “eye connection,” which he says can help patients “perceive they have spent more time with you than they have.” Pope also recommends ensuring that your smile reaches your eyes and shaking hands with your patients: “For most people, [this kind of physical contact] helps set them at ease,” he said.

3.  Ask a question to get to know your patients as people.

According to Baum, providers should spend the first two minutes of any new patient appointment discussing non-clinical subjects. While there are many different questions you could potentially ask, Baum’s examples include:

  • “What kind of work do you do?”;
  • “How long have you been retired?”; and
  • “Where do you live?”

Baum says one of these questions will usually lead to a deeper conversation that can help the “patient feel you are interested in them as a person and not as an organ system”—or neuromusculoskeletal system, as it were. (For existing patients, Braum suggests spending 30 seconds on non-healthcare related topics, such as a recent vacation or the patient’s children.) Plus, the answers to these types of questions will help you get a better understanding of the patient’s motivation and lifestyle—two important factors to consider as you tailor a course of care that will produce the best results for that particular patient.

4. Tell a joke.

Depending on your style, you could open up a new patient conversation with a joke (this strategy works especially well for providers who work with children). Texas Medical Association physician leader Jason Terk, MD, found that many of his young patients were understandably frightened when he entered the room—after all, they’d been poked, prodded, and asked to undress. To lighten the mood, he would often take an article of the child’s clothing, put it on his head, and wiggle around. According to the TMA video caption, “Laughter breaks the ice.” In one particularly adorable scenario, one of his patients remembered his silly antics from a previous visit and eagerly waited for him to repeat the performance before starting his appointment. This five-second interaction changed the dynamic of the situation from fear to fun.

5. Listen fully.

According to Wolf, many healthcare providers are tempted to ask a lot of questions at the beginning of a session, but he believes actively listening to patients can help you achieve the same goal in less time. “Studies have shown that [a patient] normally speaks for an average of 18 seconds before the doctor interrupts,” Wolff said. “But if the doctor lets them speak for three to four minutes, they tell you 90 percent of what's wrong with them.” Furthermore, feeling heard can go a long way toward helping patients feel comfortable with you—and the entire rehab therapy process.

6. Check your non-verbal cues.

According to Davis, it’s imperative that healthcare providers never appear rushed, even if they are. To keep his patients from feeling like they aren’t worth his time, Davis never looks at his watch or places his hand on the doorknob: “These behaviors imply that the patient in the room isn't as important as the one who's coming in next,” Davis said. “It's important to make each patient feel that they are in the center of the universe.” The key here is to ensure that once you’re working with a patient, you remain present and focused. Baum also suggests asking patients, “Have I answered all of your questions?” or “Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to discuss on your visit today?” before you get ready to exit the room or send a patient on his or her way.

On that note, the importance of stellar communication skills doesn’t end when patients walk out your door. According to Davis, some healthcare providers use email to answer their patients’ follow-up questions. That way, they keep the channel of communication open without getting held up in a long phone call. “I know one doctor who even has e-mail hours,” Davis said. “It's like a chat room. It keeps patients in touch with their doctors.” Carolyn Thiedke, MD—another physician featured in the AAFP article—sends her patients links to online articles and content that may be useful to them as they undergo treatment and/or recover. Depending on the size of your practice, you may be able to manage this type of enhanced patient communication strategy on your own. But for larger practices—or those that are growing—patient relationship management (PRM) software can help automate these types of value-add touchpoints to help you easily engage with your patients between visits.

Do you have a favorite communication strategy that helps you break the ice with your patients? Share it in the comment section below.

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