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The Empathy Effect: 4 Ways to Build Trust and Strengthen Relationships with Patient

Nov 24, 2020 07:00AM ● By Med Magazine

By COPIC’s Patient Safety and Risk Management Department

The provider-patient relationship is critical to quality care, especially now, in an age of heightened uncertainty. Communicating effectively is one of the most important skill sets any provider can have, and continuously improving your capacity for relationship building will benefit you and your practice for years to come.

1) Cultivate Empathy Through Effective In-Person Communication

Empathy is the ability to show that you understand or even share the feelings of another person. Showing authentic empathy helps patients feel heard, understood, and supported. Research has shown that communicating with empathy leads to higher patient and provider satisfaction, improved adherence to treatment plans, and better health outcomes.

Foundational to empathy is the ability to see a situation from within the patient’s frame of reference, says Dr. Jeffrey Varnell, a general surgeon and physician risk manager with COPIC. 

“As doctors, for example, we know that infections can occur after surgery, but for a patient, that’s not routine at all and can be very scary,” he says.

Once you’re looking at a situation through your patient’s eyes, practice reflective listening. When you listen reflectively, it means you make eye contact while your patients talk, show genuine interest in what they say, listen without interrupting or interjecting, and summarize what they said to make sure you understand and validate their concerns.

2) Communicate Effectively via Phone and Digital Channels

When it comes to showing empathy and ensuring that patients understand their health status and recommended treatments, video calls enable you to use eye contact and read patients’ facial expressions. But what about when you’re limited to telehealth via phone or a text-only chat online?

“It’s an additional challenge because you can’t rely on nonverbal cues,” says Dr. Varnell. 

If you’re communicating via chat or phone, you’ll probably need to ask more questions in order to assess the situation, determine a course of action, and make sure your patient understands. Dr. Varnell emphasizes the importance of reflective listening when you communicate recommended treatment or procedures in an online chat or phone setting. 

“You can say, ‘Okay, so this is what we recommend, and these are the risks—Why don’t you tell us what you understood about that?’”

3) Use a Robust Informed Consent Process—Not Just a Form

Informed consent is much more than just a legal imperative. “It’s a chance to improve communication and help patients get the most out of their medical care,” says Dr. Varnell. 

For informed consent to be effective, you need a thorough communication process that accompanies any relevant forms. 

“We distinguish between the process and the paper,” says Dr. Varnell. “The process is where you ensure your patients understand and to increase their compliance in their treatment. It includes conversations, pamphlets, videos—anything that helps them understand.”

When patients understand a recommended treatment and its indications, risks, benefits, alternatives, and the risk of not proceeding, they’re more likely to comply with treatment plans and experience improved outcomes. 

Dr. Varnell emphasizes the importance of having the informed consent conversation yourself as the treating provider and never delegating it, though other providers can supplement the process and documentation. Once you explain the risks and benefits of a treatment or procedure, make sure your patients understand what you’ve said, including the potential for any adverse outcomes.

4) After an Adverse Outcome, Focus on the Patient’s Needs

Transparency, honesty, and effective communication are all critical to maintaining strong relationships with patients—particularly after an adverse outcome. When results aren’t what you or the patient hoped for, empathetic communication and being there for the patient and their family become indispensable.

Communication and resolution programs are designed to address the patient’s needs, protect the provider-patient relationship, and prevent lengthy legal action in the wake of an unexpected outcome. The goals are to be honest and open about what happened and offer patients and families the chance to ask questions and get answers.

“Often lawsuits are an attempt to get information and resolution,” says Dr. Varnell. “People want to know what happened, and most of the time, they also want to know what you’re doing to prevent it from happening to others.”

Contrary to popular belief, research shows that apologizing and taking responsibility does not increase the likelihood of legal action. It does increase the likelihood of resolution, understanding, and acceptance, though. All too often, providers avoid communicating with patients after an adverse outcome out of fear of recrimination or lawsuits. This reaction actually makes legal action more likely and makes patients feel ignored.