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Build better rapport with your patients with these top tips

Dr Patrick Clancy, MBBS, FRACGP, MHlth&MedLaw, Senior Medical Adviser, Advocacy, Education and Research, Avant

Wednesday, 21 February 2024

Doctor checking eye of patient

Building rapport with patients is essential for a successful doctor-patient relationship. You need to establish an open, trusting relationship, starting from the first interaction, and developing it as therapeutic perspectives and goals change. 

As an ophthalmologist, building rapport helps encourage patient compliance in managing chronic conditions, such as glaucoma. 

“We tend to only see our patients a couple of times a year if they’re relatively stable, so we rely on them actually using their drops and understanding why. If you want to suggest alternate treatments, again it comes back to trust,” ophthalmologist Dr Jenny Danks says.

Here are some core elements of patient rapport building, with insights from Dr Danks.  

Personalise the consultation

While you want to maintain professional boundaries, friendliness and courtesy with patients help build rapport and trust. Try to find some common ground, too.

“Identify something to do with their work or home situation that you can relate to, that helps build rapport. It helps me remember something about that particular patient more than just their clinical details,” Dr Danks says. “And be a bit open yourself. It helps to open a conversation.”

US surgeon and author, Dr Atwal Gawande, recommends asking your patient an unscripted question, to develop a connection. Something like: ‘What would you be doing today if you weren’t here?’. 

Express empathy

Empathy is about understanding, being sensitive to someone’s feelings or experiences they share with you. It means actively listening and repeating what you’ve heard to show you understand. It also means checking the patient acknowledges your understanding. This helps patients feel you genuinely care about and understand them.

Non-verbal communication such as eye contact, nodding and facing your patient, reinforce empathy. Being aware of your communication style and how to adapt it to suit each patient comes with experience and is part of the ‘art’ of medicine.

Avoid rushing the patient

Time can be a challenge, especially if consultation or procedure schedules are delayed. But no matter how busy you are, always show patients you have time to listen to them and give them your full attention. 

In ophthalmology, you sometimes need to be particularly patient, especially with people who don’t like having their eyes examined. As Dr Danks explains taking your time to tailor your clinical approach to each patient is important. “There’s a proportion of patients who really don’t like being touched. That has [specific] implications [to your clinical approach], because if you are going to [do something], [the] how [is important].”  

Involve the patient in their care

Most patients want a say in their healthcare, so have them participate in decisions about treatment options, goals, or outcomes. Use layperson’s terms and ask questions, to help you understand the patient’s expectations. Encourage them to ask questions, so you can provide clarification and reassurance where needed. Consider asking:

  • what the patient wants to achieve in the visit, to gauge their priorities and expectations  
  • how they feel about their care plan
  • if they understand what you’ve discussed or have more questions.

“It’s better to lay the options out for consideration, then [have] a follow-up appointment when the patient has had a chance to write down their questions and revisit on a second or a third occasion,” Dr Danks says. “With our specialty, [it] requires an understanding of the patient’s lifestyle and their visual needs, as well as their concerns when you’re planning a procedure. It’s important they feel comfortable to divulge their needs and worries about risk.”

Show patients respect and acceptance

Respect your patients as individuals and talk to them as equals, even though they come to you for your medical expertise. Sometimes a patient will make a decision you don’t agree with, or they don’t follow advice. Avoid scolding – it’s not always what is said, but how it’s said. You can accept your patient’s decision without agreeing with it, and by showing you understand their thoughts and feelings, you maintain their trust. 

Follow up and follow through 

Have a procedure in place for advising patients about how you’ll manage any delays. If you are running late, give a reason if appropriate (e.g. emergency cases). 

If you tell a patient you’ll do something after your consultation, follow through and do it. This may include sending more information to them or emailing them a referral letter. Consider sending your patients a copy of your letter back to their referring doctor. 

Building rapport with patients doesn’t always involve a big effort, but it can make a big difference. 

Useful resources

If you require medico-legal advice on this issue, you can contact our medico-legal advisers via email at nca@avant.org.au or call 1800 128 268, available 24/7 in emergencies.

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