Trust is the foundational element of an effective physician-patient relationship. A positive and trusting relationship with your patient fosters honest conversations, shared decision-making, improved health outcomes, increased loyalty, and fewer lawsuits. Yet in today’s fast-paced environment with increased patient expectations and fewer resources, establishing a trusting relationship with your patient may seem like a daunting and time-consuming endeavor.
At CAP, we recognize the extraordinary demands placed on today’s practicing physicians and understand that simple and efficient tactics for connecting with your patients are essential for maintaining positive and enduring relationships.
Knock, Sit, & Ask
First impressions are important, especially when they are made within a matter of seconds. Although some factors that play a role in a patient’s first impression of you may be more difficult to control (facilities, time to obtain an appointment, etc.), your one-on-one engagement with your patient is in your hands. Here are three simple actions you can take immediately to enhance the “first impression” you make on your patients:1
Knock on the patient’s door before entering to demonstrate respect, courtesy, and regard for their privacy. Introduce yourself and smile to help reduce the patient’s anxiety. Many patients are coming to you with an issue that they may be worried, anxious, or even self-conscious about. A warm greeting from you can help to lessen these feelings.
Sit next to the patient to enhance the perception of time you spend with them. Listen and allow your patient to speak uninterrupted for a few minutes. Listening is an important communication tool that encourages openness and allows you to build trust.
Ask your patient “What is your greatest concern?”2 This question establishes your desire to know your patient and their goals and priorities—based on what matters to them. It establishes your relationship as a partnership, where you will work together in your respective roles, to achieve a shared outcome.
Beyond the First Impression
Consistent, effective communication with your patients builds trusting relationships, enhances the quality of care you provide, and helps protect you from lawsuits—even in the event of an unexpected outcome.3 Our CAP Cares team hears from members when an adverse event has occurred. Overwhelmingly, physicians that have established a trusting relationship with their patient not only avoid a lawsuit but inform us that their patient wants to continue under their care.
Physicians that are effective communicators consistently practice the following in their patient interactions:
Simplify explanations.4 Diagnoses and treatments should be shared with the patient in words and a manner they understand. This will be different for every patient, but generally, medical jargon and acronyms should be avoided.
Check for understanding and provide space for questions.4 After sharing information with the patient, ask if you were clear, if they have any questions, or if they need clarification. Be aware of your body language—a hand on the door may contradict your invitation for questions. Remember, patients may be preoccupied with anxiety or concerns, making it difficult for them to take in new information. Be tolerant and use repetition to reinforce your message.
Close the loop and explain the next steps.4 Clearly indicate what is next for the patient and in what time frame—is there a follow-up appointment needed? Does the patient need to see another specialist? Who will be the point person to help manage the patient’s care from a clinical standpoint, and who should they call for questions? Ensuring that there is a clear plan for any follow up, as well as a resource for the patient in the case of concerns, is important to avoid perceptions of a lack of coordination within physician practices. It is important to establish systems in your office for monitoring your patients’ care plans.
Demonstrate care for patients as people, using expressions of empathy and compassion.2 While it takes mere seconds to say the words “I’m so sorry you are going through this,” or “We are going to go through this together—I’ll be with you every step of the way,” the impact on your patient may be profound, showing them that you see them as a person and truly are their partner in care.
This information is provided as a service to CAP members from a risk management perspective and is not intended as legal advice. If you have questions or a specific patient situation and need guidance, please contact the Hotline at (800) 252-0555.
Yvette Ervin is a Senior Risk Management & Patient Safety Specialist for CAP. Questions or comments related to this article should be directed to YErvin@CAPphysicians.com.
Debra Roter, (2006). The Patient-Physician Relationship and Its Implications for Malpractice Litigation, J. Health Care L.& Pol’y https://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/jhclp/vol9/iss2/7
Ghazala Q. Sharief, MD, MBA (2017). MD to MD Coaching: Improving Physician-Patient Experience Scores, J Patient Exp
Stephen Beeson (2006). Practicing Excellence, A Physician’s Manual to Exceptional Health Care
1Ghazala Q. Sharief, MD, MBA (2017). MD to MD Coaching: Improving Physician-Patient Experience Scores, J Patient Exp
2Stephen Beeson (2006). Practicing Excellence, A Physician’s Manual to Exceptional Health Care
3Debra Roter, (2006). The Patient-Physician Relationship and Its Implications for Malpractice Litigation, J. Health Care L.& Pol’y
4Anne Long, RN, JD (2011). Healthcare Quality & Risk Management Report, UNT,