I frequently hear the comment that “we can do great on patient satisfaction, but then it gets busy, and patient satisfaction goes out the window.” My own experience contradicts this maxim, however. It is not how much time you spend with your patient but, rather, what you do with the time you have. One of the most powerful things we can do is listen. I used to make the mistake that I only wanted to hear the information I needed to figure out my patients’ problems so I could start treating them; however, I have come to learn that being heard is, in itself, therapy for my patients. It is often quoted that physicians interrupt their patients within 18 seconds of starting the interview.7 A lot of physicians dispense with attentive listening when they are under time pressure, when they should instead dispense with lengthy discourses on the patient treatment plan. It is important to educate our patients on their illness and treatment, I admit. I find a lot of hospitalists want to impart their knowledge and their treatment rationale to their patients; however, they frequently give patients and families much more information than they can hold in their cognitive memory. And time pressures are not the only anxieties hospitalists carry with them to the bedside. Our increasingly metric-driven profession means that we not only have to worry about morning discharges, interdisciplinary rounds, length of stay, and so on, but we also have to consider patient experience. It is not easy to hide all the stress we are under when we come to the bedside of a patient, but we have to. The easiest way to do that is to take a deep breath, sit next to the patient, ask an open-ended question, and then say nothing until the patient is done speaking. Active listening with good eye contact and encouragement to continue solidifies the patient’s experience of being heard. There are extreme cases when a patient is in a manic phase and won’t ever stop speaking; bend the rules a bit in those circumstances. However, the above rule works very effectively in the majority of physician-patient interactions. Being heard leaves an enduring emotional memory with our patients.
Hospital medicine often looks to other industries for inspiration on how we can improve. The airline industry is often held up as an example of how we can model patient safety, for instance, but these comparisons oversimplify the challenges we face. The same is true with patient satisfaction. In the business world, adages like “The customer is always right” are central to customer satisfaction, yet completely irrelevant to HM practice. Patients and families frequently have inappropriate and unrealistic expectations of their hospitalist physicians. We cannot, and should not, tell the patient addicted to narcotics that they can have as much IV Dilaudid as they would like. We cannot fix the patient with end-stage cancer, heart failure, or dementia. This is where we have to part ways with comparisons to principles that guide other industries if we are going to find a way forward with patient experience in hospital medicine. Because we have to set limits for patients, we often have to give our patients and families bad news, and because we have to tell them things they don’t like to hear, like “You can’t have any salt in your diet,” or “You must quit drinking alcohol,” we must develop our own principles on patient experience and satisfaction. Otherwise our options are either delivering inappropriate medical care or abandoning the pursuit of patient satisfaction all together. This is when we must remember that emotional memories are more enduring. We can’t always give our patients what they want, and we can’t always tell them what they want to hear, but we can always show them that we care. When we show our patients that we care in a palpable way, we leave them with the feeling that they have been cared for regardless of their condition, and the positive memory will endure despite the negative information we may have to convey. Maybe they won’t cut down on their salt or quit drinking alcohol, but they will never forget that their hospitalist physician cared.