Why Listening is the Most Impactful Tool to Improve Patient Engagement
Two very different encounters I recently had with physicians made me reflect on the patient experience and how physicians engage with their patients.
As I wait anxiously in the physician’s exam room, I see catch myself glancing from wall-to-wall wondering what news (positive or negative) the doctor might share with me today. This is my first ever encounter with this doctor – how could this person possibly figure out exactly what’s wrong having met me only once?
Let me back up just a bit and share my story with you.
Life changes = changing physicians
I recently visited several physicians within the Charleston area since I relocated here roughly a year ago. With my husband starting a new position, us moving to a completely new area, and me starting a new job myself, my life was nothing short of complete chaos.
Not only were there several changes in my personal and professional life, but I also wasn’t acclimated to being so distant from family and friends. With all the change occurring, unusual health symptoms started to appear in my life. Weight loss, hair loss, and having minor panic attacks were only just a few. After a few weeks, I decided to see a doctor. I went to my appointment and provided the medical assistant with all my information and explained my symptoms in detail. Taking copious notes, my blood pressure, and blood work, she stated, “The doctor will be in shortly.”
The doctor enters, the wrong approach
Several minutes passed and the doctor entered the room. She introduced herself and started reviewing my symptoms with me. Minutes go by with her talking, reviewing my chart and sharing a list of my potential diagnoses.
As she continued to speak, one specific diagnosis resonated with me and all I could focus on was the negative potential outcomes. I was only focused on the worst. By this point, I tuned-out of the conversation and all I remembered was the doctor saying, “Do you have any questions?”
Of course, I had lots of questions, but I found myself speechless in that moment. She looked down at the chart and stated, “No questions, have a great day…” and walked out of the room. I sat there in silence and was on the verge of tears. I wondered why the doctor didn’t ask me to share my symptoms. She simply repeated the information I provided to the medical assistant and a list of potential diagnoses pending results of my blood work.
Different doctor, refreshing approach
So, now that you have a little background, let’s fast-forward to the start of this story. I decided to seek a second opinion. I scheduled an appointment and was quickly back in another exam room. A medical assistant entered the room and performed a typical medical routine. She asked me several questions and stated, “The doctor will be in shortly.” I had a flash of deja vu. “Here we go again,” I thought.
Within minutes, the doctor entered the room, but this time it was different. He introduced himself, sat down, and started to ask me some personal questions, nothing medical related. After several questions, he just sat back and said, “Tell me about your life over the past few months.” I started to explain every detail possible to him as he just sat there and continued to listen. I let it all out, and he listened the entire time.
Finally, after minutes of allowing me to control the conversation (and handing me a box of tissues), he told me, “I can tell you your exact diagnosis based on your story. You simply are stressed and experiencing anxiety.” Of course, I questioned him for reassurance, but he explained to me, “When you take the time to listen to your patients, they simply will tell you their diagnosis.”
Communication impacts patient engagement
A physician’s approach to the doctor-patient relationship impacts how engaged patients are regarding their health. Poor communication between physicians and patients can often lead to worse consequences or negative perceptions. Communication goes beyond conversing with the patient as it relates to the care plan and diagnosis.
Essentially, there are multiple components such as trust, physician empathy, and professional boundaries that are requirements when physicians and patients interact. Outside these requirements, listening to the patient is the key ingredient to developing a solid doctor-patient relationship. Fortunately, many physicians now place a high-level of emphasis on active listening. Studies find organizations who don’t encourage active listening may be ignoring a necessary skill set needed to control costs, improve medical care, and have stronger clinical outcomes.
The power of active listening
Engaging in active listening is simply practicing good medicine. Allowing the patient to speak freely and control the conversation demonstrates interpersonal and communication skills. Communication is noted as a “two-way street”.
An appropriate diagnosis by the physician depends on his or her ability to explain symptoms and concerns, but it also depends on the ability to listen. If a doctor does not take the time to listen, the patient’s perception may be that the doctor is not interested in what the patient has to say. As a result, the doctor can potentially be misinforming the patient or misdiagnosing the patient.
As patients have stated in multiple studies, one of the greatest frustrations is the doctor not providing patients the chance to be heard. A physician must take the time to listen to patients to gain a full understanding of what’s occurring in their lives. Not only will active listening improve communication between the physician and patient, but it will provide opportunities to exhibit empathy, build trust, and set professional boundaries while developing the relationship. If active listening doesn’t occur, trust and a meaningful relationship could be lost.
Reflecting on my experience and story, I realized, as the patient, how impactful it was just to have the time to tell my story, and the doctor taking the time to listen. I remember worrying for days leading up to my appointment for a second opinion. Mentally, I felt discouraged entering into another doctor’s office, but an encounter that took all of 10-minutes changed my perception of what I search for in a doctor for a lifetime.