Twenty-six-year-old Kylie is visibly tired at the end of her shift. This is her30th month in her first “grownup” job as a full-time nurse, so the drama of COVID was her introduction to the health care profession. She understands she’s supposed to be kind to those she is trying to help. But some people, especially when they’re ill and believe they know your job better than you, are almost impossible to have compassion for. Kylie’s had some brief training on patient engagement and the concept of customer service, and she was recently given a book by an older coworker about Ritz Carlton-style service. However, two glaring facts stand out in her mind:(1)This is not the Ritz Carlton and (2)she doesn’t really like to read books!
To be clear, this is not a generational witch hunt. It’s not even about a new nurse navigating difficult personal circumstances. Kylie’s just an example of how a lack of patient engagement can occur on our end—an example many of us are all too familiar with. Aside from that one lady who seems outright disappointed that all her tests came back negative, would it surprise you to hear that many upset patients are fairly normal people who see us as the inconsiderate ones?
Imperfect people that we are, we humans tend to see ourselves and our actions in an empathetic light, justifying our own mistakes or poor behavior while being critical of those of others. This can be as true of us as it is of our patients. Though you’d never know it from TikTok or reality TV, people usually have their reasons for being unkind and uncaring. You might well be understaffed, overburdened, and frustrated by cantankerous patients who don’t seem to listen. But just maybe your patients are cantankerous because they’re in pain, worried about their condition, and frustrated by healthcare professionals who don’t seem to listen.
As a part of our important mission to promote overall healing, have you considered the role that engagement plays? When we take steps to actively engage with patients, as their experience improves, so does their receptivity to our care and our prescriptive counsel. The best part is that creating engagement doesn’t require impressive expertise, years of experience, or an M.D.—the basic steps are practical and simple.
- Make the patient feel valued. When you’re in a hurry, your patients can tell. Although you may see dozens of patients a day and may have dealt with a particular problem a thousand times, you may be the only practitioner your patient will meet for months. They aren’t thinking about how busy you are or how they should defer to your experience. What they see is a practitioner who isn’t listening or taking them seriously. In short, they don’t feel valued, and we’ve made a much harder job for both of us. Being valued is what people want more than anything, as decades of Gallup polls tell us. By making patients feel valued, you put them in a brighter mood and increase the likelihood that they will listen attentively and value your experience.
- Minimize the busyness. Workloads may be overwhelming and timing can be tight. But telling patients you’re understaffed and overburdened can have adverse effects that cause patients to see your delivery of care through a jaundiced eye. (That’s a euphemism, not a diagnosis.) Even when you don’t have much time, leave patients with no doubt that you’re present in the moment.
- Listen conscientiously and actively. Typing out notes when meeting with patients signals attentiveness and keeps you from asking the same questions more than once (a pet peeve for many).It also conveys your focus on pinpointing their concerns and addressing each one, as you can let them speak with minimal interruption and come back around to each point. Needless to say, typing’s also better than handwritten documentation. It’s not just an old adage; health care professionals notoriously cannot read their own writing. I still have a years-old note from my doctor that I swear reads “Fax me a halibut.”
- Communicate clearly and comprehensively. A crucial part of a practitioner’s job is communication, where it’s important to be precise and Terms like “as needed” can be far too open-ended for some patients who think more is better. Similarly, listing every side effect can make people feel the cure is as bad as the problem. It’s common to get calls from overinformed patients who’ve googled details on side effects you shouldn’t have mentioned and now have three of the rarest reactions in medical history.
- Build trust, then educate. Because you’ve taken care to make the patient feel valued, you’ve actively listened, and you’ve communicated well, you’ve built something which will make your job much easier:trust. Patients who trust their practitioners are less likely to go home anxious and more likely to stick to your prescription plan. Overall, they’re less likely to return for you to repeat an exercise in futility—and let’s be honest; there are some patients we’d all like to see less of.
In times like these, many people are short on patience and more suspicious of health care professionals than ever. If, like young nurse Kylie, you find yourself losing patience with your patients, remember that caring is not something patients need to earn. It is literally the foundation of healthcare. With the guidance of your own experience, you can strive to create a culture of patient engagement that keeps people coming back to your facility as the destination of choice for medical services.
Garrison Wynn is a nationally known keynote speaker, author, and consultant. He is the CEO and founder of Wynn Solutions, specializing in how people and organizations can be more influential.