Bridging the doctor-patient communication gap

When Mrs. Bhatia had swollen, painful knees, her physician made the correct diagnosis of osteoarthritis. While prescribing the standard course of anti-inflammatory medicines for her, he did not provide her with a list of the possible side effects. Mrs. Bhatia also did not tell her doctor that she had been diagnosed with a peptic ulcer; had he known, he would have prescribed an alternate medication.

Key Point: Happy patients mean happy doctors. Placing the doctor-patient relationship at the forefront and communicating proactively with patients will create greater patient satisfaction. Satisfied patients are one of the best ways to build your practice through world-of-mouth referrals.

The NSAIDs caused Mrs. Bhatia’s ulcer to start bleeding, leading to an emergency gastroscopy to control the symptoms. Frustrated with her doctor for not warning her of the possible side effects of the medication, Mrs. Bhatia complained to her friends and neighbors. This greatly unsettled the physician, a caring professional who felt betrayed that his reputation was being tarnished due to an unintentional communication lapse between patient and doctor.


“Patient satisfaction makes great business sense. Contented patients are the best source of new patients. This is why happy patients make for happy doctors.”
-Aniruddha Malpani, MD, medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India


Happy patients=happy doctors

Every doctor wants to see his or her patients get better. The strong urge to help others is often the primary driving force for choosing medicine as a profession. Medicine is the[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]…

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] ultimate service profession. Since it entails a one-on-one relationship, good doctors devote a lot of their time and energy to keeping patients happy.

Apart from making doctors feel good about themselves, patient satisfaction also makes great business sense. Contented patients are the best source of new patients. Word-of-mouth marketing goes a long way in expanding a doctor’s practice. This is why happy patients make for happy doctors.

Unfortunately, not all patients respond well to treatment. Medications do not always work, and the human body is unpredictable. Most patients understand that the outcome of medical treatment is uncertain, and that just because a problem occurs does not mean that the doctor was incompetent or negligent.

However, not all patients adopt such a mature approach. They may become angry and need to vent their frustrations, and a doctor can become an easy target. Some patients may even become abusive—both in real life and online—which can ultimately damage your hard-earned reputation.

What’s worse, this can set up a negative vicious cycle. Doctors who have been abused by angry patients often become resentful and/or fearful. They may start practicing defensive medicine and distancing themselves from patients to protect themselves.

Many studies have shown that patients do not sue a doctor simply because of an undesirable outcome. They also pursue legal action due to their subjective feelings about the doctor, which often relate back to communication issues.

Most patients do understand that medicine is not an exact science and that positive outcomes are not guaranteed. However, if the doctor does not bother to communicate effectively with the patient prior to and after treatment, miscommunications can occur. Then patients may become angry and find outlets to express their anger.

Therefore, it’s important to focus on creating happy and satisfied patients by placing the doctor-patient relationship at the forefront. Communicating with patients proactively can help make sure that they have realistic expectations.

Information therapy

Educating patients, or providing what I like to call “information therapy,” is an excellent way to ensure that they are informed and have realistic expectations. You can deliver information therapy through printed materials, Web sites, and videos that you provide to patients. These information sources should explain diseases or conditions that you have diagnosed in patients, medication issues, and details on potential risks and complications.

Leveraging these types of educational tools can save time for you and your staff while allowing patients to learn at their own pace, and it allows you to then focus your time with patients on any remaining questions.

This way, you do not need to repeat similar information over and over to multiple patients. The use of these materials also can help eliminate possible human error by ensuring that all possible outcomes have been properly discussed; after all, it’s easy to miss details when you have a busy clinic schedule and you are pressed for time.

From a risk management perspective, Web sites that have patients provide informed consent online allow documentation of the fact that all risks and complications were properly explained to the patient, which can help protect you in the event of a lawsuit.

Effective communication helps build relationships, and goes a long way in strengthening a healthy doctor-patient bond that is mutually beneficial.

Dr. Malpani is medical director of Malpani Infertility Clinic in Mumbai, India, medical director of the HELP-Health Education Library for People, and author of a physician and patient education blog. He is an angel investor in Plus 91, which offers customized Web sites for doctors. This article is excerpted with permission from Dr. Malpani’s book Using information therapy to put patients first, which is available free of charge at: http://www.slideshare.net/malpani/using-information-therapy-to-put-patients-first.

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