Tips on Better Patient Communications

Healing starts with eye-to- eye contact


SAN DIEGO—Don’t stand when you talk at bedside. Ditch the white gowns, turn away from your computers and pagers, and stop yourself from interrupting all the time.

These tips—and more—can help clinicians provide better and more effective care, said a colorectal surgeon who spoke about communication skills at the annual meeting of the Association of VA Hematology/Oncology (AVAHO).

Research has suggested that nearly half of Americans don’t think their health care practitioners (HCPs) are compassionate, “and that’s really sad,” said Lorene Valdez-Boyle, MD, MS, surgery chief at the New Mexico VA Health Care Service.

To combat this perception, she said, HCPs can adopt multiple strategies as they work with veterans and their families. The goal, she said, is “to try to get them to trust you and want to be part of their treatment. This is how we're going to have better outcomes.”

Some strategies are simple. Dr. Valdez-Boyle, for example, doesn’t wear a white gown when she sees patients. “Obviously, they’re really gross,” she said. “But also, I want them to be comfortable with me. I sit down at their level, and we have a conversation. We talk about our dogs and we bond, because that’s going to help them trust me and want to work with me. I do that with families too. We joke, and we laugh.”

Sitting bedside instead of standing is important, she said, and a 2016 study backs up this idea. “It’s difficult when you’re running around or you want to get to the next one, and the patient just keeps talking,” she said. But research showed that “when the clinician sat, the patient felt like they listened more carefully, and they explained things in a better way that was much easier for them to understand. They definitely had an improved perception of their [clinician’s] communication skills.”

She highlighted another 2016 study that examined a Commit to Sit initiative in which nurses were urged to sit with patients during each shift. Nurse communication scores and overall patient experience scores went up.

The VA now has a Commit to Sit initiative, which urges clinicians to put away computers, smart phones, and pagers. “The patient feels that we’ve listened more intently to their concerns and care more about them as a patient,” Dr. Valdez-Boyle said. “We have an improved understanding of their health as a result of this. It allows the site employee to continue to be efficient while still delivering compassionate care and fosters trusted relationships in an empathetic and respectful manner.”

For more about the initiative, visit the VA PX SharePoint.

The VA, she said, also has a Take a Moment initiative that emphasizes eye contact, face-to-face interaction without electronics for at least the first 5 minutes of each visit, and seated conversations.

Dr. Valdez-Boyle also urged colleagues to pay attention to how often they interrupt. She pointed to a 2019 study that reported that patients had a median of 11 seconds—yes, seconds—to explain their problem in two-thirds of clinician encounters. “I think some of it is because we think we know what they're going to say.”


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