Editor’s note: “Everything We Say and Do” provides readers with thoughtful and actionable communication tactics that can positively impact patients’ experience of care. In the current series of columns, physicians share how their experiences as patients have shaped their professional approach.
I have been fortunate to have had very few major health issues throughout my life. I have, however, had three major surgical procedures in the last 10 years – two total hip arthroplasties and a cataract removal with lens implant in between. The most recent THA was October 2017. Going through each procedure helped me see things from a patient’s perspective, and that showed me how important little things are to a patient, things which we may not think are all that big a deal as a provider.
For example, during my first total hip arthroplasty, the surgeon took time to sit down in the room during each visit. He continued to write in the chart periodically while we spoke, but he was sitting while doing it. I could not believe the difference in how that made me feel about his visits! I felt like he was taking his time, and it put me more at ease. I knew what he was doing and why he was doing it (I had been preaching it to my team for years), and yet, it still made a difference to me.
Almost all of the medical personnel who came to care for me during my stays identified themselves and why they were there, and that made me feel comfortable, knowing who they were and their role. However, there were a few who did not do this, and that made me uncomfortable, not knowing who they were and why they were in my room. Not knowing is an uncomfortable feeling for a patient.
Almost every registered nurse who came to me with medication explained what the medicine was and why they were administering it, with the exception of one preop RN I met before to my cataract procedure. She walked up to me, told me to open my eye wide, held the affected eye open, and started dripping cold drops into my eye without explanation. She then said she would be back every 10 minutes to repeat the process. I had to inquire as to what the medication was and why there was a need for this process. It was a jolting experience, and she showed no compassion toward me as a patient or a person, even after I inquired.
This was not a good experience. Although cataract surgery was a totally new experience for me, she had obviously done this many times before and had to do it many times that day. However, she acted as if I should have known what she was going to do and as if she need not explain herself to anyone – which she did not, even after being queried.
Everyone during the admission process for all three procedures was solicitous and warm except for one person. Unfortunately, this individual was the first person to greet my wife and me when we arrived for my last total hip arthroplasty. She was seated at the welcome desk with her head down. After we arrived, she kept her head down and asked “How can I help you?” without ever looking up. I did not realize how unwelcome I would feel when the first person I encountered in the surgical preop admissions area failed to make eye contact with me. Her demeanor was nice enough, but she did not even attempt to make a personal connection with me – and she was at the welcome desk!
Overall, I had tremendously good experiences at three facilities in three different parts of the United States, but as we all know, it is the things that do not go well that stand out. I choose to use those things, along with some of the good things, as “reinforcers” for many of the patient-experience behaviors we identify as best practices.
What I say and do
During each patient encounter, I make eye contact with the patient and each person in the room and identify who I am and why I am there. I sit down during each visit unless there is simply no place for me to do so. I explain the procedures that are to take place, set expectations for those procedures, and then use “teachback” to ensure that my discussion with the patient has been effective. Setting expectations is very important to me: If you do not ensure that patients have appropriate expectations, their expectations will never be met and they will never have a good experience. I explain any new medication I am ordering, what it is for, and any possible significant side effects and again use teachback. The last thing I do is ask “What questions do you have for me today?” giving the patient permission to have questions, and then I respond to those questions with plain talk and teachback.
Why I do it
Not knowing what was going on and feeling marginalized were the most uncomfortable things I experienced as a patient. Using best practices for patient experience shows courtesy and respect. These practices show a willingness to take time with the patient and demonstrate my concern that I am effectively communicating my message for that visit. All of these behaviors decrease uncertainty and/or raise the patient’s feelings of importance, thereby decreasing marginalization.
How I do it
I remind myself each day I am on a clinical shift that my goal is to treat each patient like I would want my family (or myself) to be treated, and then I go out and do it. After “forcing” myself to put these behaviors into my rounding routine, they have become second nature, and I feel better for providing this level of care because it made me feel so good when I was cared for in this manner.
Dr. Sharp is chief hospitalist with Sound Physicians at University of Florida Health in Jacksonville, Fla.