Patient noncompliance with physician directions has cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $100 billion annually, and much of it is linked to poor physician-patient communication. It is important for physicians to develop ways to improve their communication skills and achieve better patient compliance.
What can physicians do to increase patient willingness to follow treatment plans? Connecting with a patient emotionally is the first step to persuasion. Even further, the patient needs to see the physician listening and engaged in the conversation. Active listening is one tool in the arsenal—a way you may be able to understand the emotions behind the words. It includes eye contact, nodding and responding by asking for more information.
In addition, physicians need to be authoritative and communicate decisively. Some words and phrases, such as “I think,” or “maybe,” can confuse patients. Words such as “critical” and “essential” are decisive and add weight to your message. It may be helpful to prepare scripts for your most common presentations and attempt to eliminate vague or indecisive language. However, be careful not to sound too “canned.”
You also should be careful with medical jargon. Patients may be intimidated or confused by it. Unfortunately, they may not admit to it out of embarrassment. One study noted that the word “chronic,” which to a doctor usually means persistent or long-term, is thought of as “severe” by many patients. In addition, that is not a case of jargon, but of nuances within medical terminology. It all goes back to active listening. Does your patient understand what you are saying?
Clarify the consequences
Do not simply explain a proposed treatment plan. It is important to describe what could happen if the patient does not comply. For example, “I think you need an antibiotic to clear up this earache” could become “It is important that we clear up this earache using an antibiotic so it does not become a full-fledged sinus infection.”
It is also the case that the way the patient first perceives you affects compliance. Research indicates that the impression you make in the first two seconds takes four minutes to change. If you enter the examining room and appear distracted and hurried, that is how the patient will perceive his or her entire experience.
Do not under-promise, over deliver or vice versa. There are rarely 100% guarantees in medicine. Words such as “always” and “never” can be tricky. There is a fine line between being decisive and over promising particular results.
Be ready for last-minute questions
You need to be aware of the doorknob moment, which occurs when you are exiting the examining room and a patient says, “There is one more thing…” You can avoid this half-in, half-out question-and answer session by asking, before heading for the door, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
If you implement these approaches, you can help improve patient compliance. This in turn will lead to more successful patient outcomes.