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The Speed of Trust: One Doctor’s System for Physician-Patient Communications

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

communications cans on a stringTo hitchhike on a brilliant concept by Stephen Covey: information flows at the speed of trust.*

For physician-patient communications and healthcare marketing there’s a powerful payoff in getting the communications cycle right—beginning with the basics. Four of the benefits that flow at the speed of trust are compliance, engagement, improved outcomes and a prospectively positive patient experience.

Get it right: bonded relationship is established. Trust propels and facilitates these benefits. Get it wrong (or merely skip a step), and the lack of trust becomes a formidable barrier. It's a fundamental element of physician marketing.

People will swear to us that they know all this, but then they confess that the press of business in a busy doctor’s office inevitably tends to shortchange the physician-patient exchange. In fact, when we help clients with communications issues, we commonly uncover three problem zones. (Can you identify with these, or any others?)

It’s called a communications cycle for a reason. Marketing and public relations professionals, and communications-savvy practitioners, immediately recognize that between the SENDER and the RECEIVER are two channels is a message channel and a feedback channel. Some definitions are more complex than this, but all agree that without the feedback step, the cycle isn’t complete. Communications simply didn’t happen.

Too much Information; too little communications. A corollary cousin to the item above, Mind the Gap blogger Stephen Wilkins brought the “too much/too little” idea home to us recently in his post: Challenge #1 For Health Care Providers. [Recommended reading here.]

“No doubt most providers are proficient at quickly giving information to patients. [But…] the weight of evidence suggests that his patients probably do not understand the information he quick doles out and probably are not particularly satisfied with it. [Patients] probably do not want to confront the good doctor, choosing instead to ignore his recommendations or seek advice elsewhere, e.g., no-adherence.”

Practice to master communications skills (however elementary they seem.) Because everyone believes they communicate, there is no apparent need to practice…not any more than practicing breathing or walking. Seems that way, but no so. In fact everyone can benefit from practicing and mastering these essential skills.

Molecular geneticist and oncologist Jennifer Kelly, MD, PhD, wrote about this topic recently…from doctor to doctor. “The manner in which a physician communicates information to a patient is as important as the information being communicated. Patients who understand their doctors are more likely to acknowledge health problems, understand their treatment options, modify their behavior accordingly, and follow their medication schedules.”

Her post titled Essential patient communication tips for physicians—which you’ll want to read in the full article here for elaboration—listed nine bits of advice to professional colleagues.

  • Assess what the patient already knows
  • Assess what the patient wants to know
  • Be empathic
  • Slow down
  • Keep it simple
  •  Tell the truth
  •  Be hopeful
  •  Watch the patient’s (and your own) body and face
  • Be prepared for a reaction

In offering these reminders, Dr. Kelly makes a valuable physician marketing point. “[Doctors] are more than a passive conduit of medical information for their patients; they are interpreters and shapers of their patients’ health and full partners in their patient’s long-term health status.

“Avoiding communication pitfalls and sharpening basic communication skills can help strengthen the patient-physician bond that many patients and physicians believe is lacking.”

* Widely respected leadership expert Stephen M. R. Covey is co-founder and CEO of CoveyLink Worldwide and the author of The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything.

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