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How to Improve Communication in the Therapeutic Relationship

Posted by Dr. Adam Killpartrick, DC CNS on Jun 13, 2018 3:16:48 PM


Effective communication in a therapeutic relationship is necessary to help your patients achieve their desired health goals.

The physician-patient relationship hinges on your ability to communicate clearly and effectively. A failure to communicate will not only erode trust with your patient but may negatively influence health outcomes.

Communication with patients has evolved well beyond bedside manner.

Relationship management is a critical part of your responsibilities as a physician. A growing body of research indicates that your ability to effectively communicate can actually improve patient outcomes.

Strong communication is both an intuitive and learned skill. What can you do to be a better communicator and practitioner as a result?

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Build Trust through Compassion

Therapeutic communication starts with trust.

Gaining your patient’s trust is a key component of the patient-centered approach to healthcare. It’s critical for a patient to view you as a trusted advisor that can always be relied upon. It’s why they’ve chosen a doctor of functional medicine over a general practitioner.

How do you create that sense of trust with your patient?

Build your relationship around understanding by showing compassion for your patient’s symptoms and concerns. In turn, this will make them much more receptive to your care and comfortable divulging information.

“Establishing a good relationship will improve trust,” said Dr. Andrew Heyman, Director of Integrative Medicine at The George Washington University. “That enhances disclosure by patients. You, in fact, get more information from them. That allows you to make better decisions.”

If you’re seen as being judgmental, a patient will be less inclined to express his or her feelings and emotions to you. It’s only natural that your biases and prior experiences will creep into your diagnosis and treatment. But, it’s essential that each patient receive the individual care and attention that they expect from you. 

Compassionate care will make your patient feel more comfortable, inform your diagnosis and help you develop an effective treatment plan.

Engage in Active Listening

Your patient is counting on you to be understanding and empathetic. That all starts and ends with active listening.   

Dr. Heyman suggests asking open-ended questions to encourage your patients to fully express their feelings. This allows your patient to formulate a complete answer and gives them the time and space to tell their story. On the contrary, “yes or no” questions don’t give your patient the room to expand on their healthcare history and symptoms. 

Offer your patient the chance to answer without interruption. Show that you’re fully focused on them and not thinking about getting lunch, your next appointment or that new show on Netflix. Your body language will show your patient whether or not they have your full attention.

“If there’s a conflict between your non-verbal and spoken messages, the non-verbal message is the one that’ll be believed,” said Dr. Heyman. “If you’re not fully present for that patient, they will know.”

Take the time to learn about your patient’s background to develop a much more complete picture. You’ll also gain invaluable insights about their physical and emotional state, which may unlock a potential diagnosis or treatment plan that you hadn’t considered.

Active listening is a tactic that’ll help you develop a deeper bond that can better inform your diagnoses and treatment plans. Give your patient the freedom to express themselves in a nurturing environment and it’ll sow the seeds of a strong doctor-patient relationship.

Reassure Your Patient

You’ve devoted the time needed to build trust and gather crucial information from your patient. Now, it’s important to respond and reassure your patient to encourage continued disclosure.

Dr. Heyman recommends reflection and confirmation as a way to reassure your patient that you’re “tuning into their emotional state.”  

You can repeat information back to your patient or mention a specific detail or emotion that the patient disclosed. Echoing a patient’s words, emotions or behaviors is a powerful tool to demonstrate your ability to listen and remember. As a result, your patient will appreciate that you’ve taken the time to listen and understand their problems.

Reflection is one technique that will help cement the bond between you and your patient. It’ll also encourage your patient to make future disclosures that could be critical to your diagnosis or treatment recommendations.  

Communication is the foundation of patient-centric care. It’s critical for establishing trust, gathering information and effectively treating your patient.

Strong communication can also keep your patient fully engaged in their healthcare, improve compliance and lead to positive health outcomes. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, we recommend viewing the following webinar entitled, “Therapeutic Relationship,” hosted by Dr. Andrew Heyman with DaVinci Laboratories.

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