The more high-tech we get, the more we need the healing power of the human touch.
Fam Pract Manag. 2003 Apr;10(4):66.
It is often a physician who is the first to touch us when we are born and the last to touch us as we die. As physicians, we have the opportunity to touch our patients on many levels: physically, emotionally and spiritually. This can bring them peace, comfort and, perhaps, an element of cure. As our world becomes more high-tech, we as physicians must become more deliberate about creating a trusting environment for our patients. Here are a few simple things you can begin doing today.
Make your patients comfortable
During office visits, talk briefly with your patients to set them at ease before you begin discussing their personal medical problems or have them undress for their exams. If patients do need to undress, have them get dressed before you discuss your findings and recommendations. Patients are usually much more comfortable and attentive when discussing their medical complaints fully clothed.
Practice casual conversation
Communicating with patients on a personal level gives them an opportunity to become familiar with the human being in the white coat. This can mean sharing life experiences, such as the birth of a grandchild or the marriage of a son, or discussing current events. When patients realize their doctor is also a human being with feelings and similar life experiences, it can foster an increased sense of closeness, caring and, eventually, trust.
Stay on level ground
Sit on the side of your patient’s hospital bed or on a stool by the exam table. Standing as you talk to a patient may mistakenly give the impression that you’re in a hurry. It may also make the patient feel inferior.
Physically touch your patient
When appropriate, put your arm around your patient or hold his or her hand. This small gesture can bring considerable comfort and shows human caring and compassion.
Call the patient yourself
Reassure patients by personally calling those whose test results may be confusing or alarming. And, as your schedule permits, call to check on how a patient is handling a certain type of treatment. Write a condolence letter to a patient’s family, or attend a funeral. If you’ve never done this, you may feel uncomfortable at first, but you’ll soon find out how important this gesture is to your patients and their families.
State the facts, but…
When discussing diagnosis and treatment, state clearly and concisely what the evidence shows or has not been able to prove. Make sure your patients understand the difference. Also, fully inform your patients of the risks and benefits associated with treatment plans. Give them literature to take home and read. Urge them to ask questions or to call when questions arise. An informed patient is easier to care for and considerably more trusting.
… don’t always hide emotion
It is acceptable for physicians to cry during emotional times. Do you recall President George W. Bush’s first news conference following 9/11? His eyes filled with tears, and our country identified with and trusted him. When you reveal yourself to your patients, they will identify with and begin to trust you.
Take a spiritual history
Talk to your patients about their spiritual beliefs. This will give you insight about how they may cope with illness or how their beliefs might influence their decisions regarding treatment. When appropriate, pray with your patients. Doing so will show your support for their beliefs.
High tech and high touch
In an increasingly technological medical environment, the importance of human touch can easily be overshadowed by the latest, greatest drugs and therapies. But high tech demands more touch, not less. And even busy physicians can touch their patients by doing something at each visit that builds trust. Instilling trust in what we say and do should be our ultimate and definitive goal as physicians. It is our absolute responsibility. It is also our moral duty.
Dr. Boehm is professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and chairman of the ethics committee at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He is also the author of Doctors Cry, Too: Essays From the Heart of a Physician.
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