What to do when a patient says thank you

Let me show you four simple steps, requiring just 15 seconds, that will turn a patient thank you into a two-way healing encounter of the highest order.

It is incredibly easy for a thank you from a patient to slip by during a busy day in the office. We can get so caught up in the blizzard of clinical tasks we fail to hear what the patient is trying to communicate. We don’t recognize the importance of those two words and the feelings behind them. They are actually a hidden doorway into a deeper level of connection: One that benefits both the patient and the doctor.

When you learn how to release the busyness of your office day and use a thank you as that doorway of connection, you will find a powerful tool to prevent your own physician burnout and create the highest levels of patient satisfaction. Here’s why these moments of patient gratitude are so important.

I have asked hundreds of doctors to tell me a story of their most recent rewarding patient encounter. That patient interaction where, at the end of the day, they look back and said to themselves, “Oh yeah, that’s why I became a doctor.”

These stories all have one thing in common. No matter what the details of the case, each story always ends with the patient or their family and caregivers saying thank you.

Unfortunately, most doctors I talk with are so busy with refills and EMR notifications that the patient’s thank you doesn’t even scratch the surface of their awareness.

“Thank you” is an opportunity for you to do two fundamental things:

  1. Reconnect you with your purpose and sense of fulfillment in your practice and simultaneously inject energy to all three of your energetic bank accounts.
  2. Give the patient and their caregivers the opportunity to connect with you in a whole new way.

If you don’t recognize and take advantage of these brief moments of gratitude, they are quickly swallowed up by the pile of tasks in your practice day, and this window of opportunity slams shut. Here’s how it usually goes.

You’re distracted and perhaps a little surprised at the open expression of thanks. You say something like, “You’re welcome, just doing my job,” and hurry on to the next patient. This magic moment passes, and everyone feels like something was missed.

Let me show you a different way to accept their gratitude — and express your own thanks — that can make all the difference when these precious moments arise.

Let’s take a second here to dive into this example of patient communication from the patient’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes.

Have you ever had a wonderful encounter with a service person at a restaurant, or a hotel or during a purchase? They did an outstanding job. You want to thank them and let them know how grateful you are. But when you say thank you, it doesn’t seem to land. They don’t take a moment to let it soak in and say, “You’re welcome.” How does that make you feel?

Your patients feel the same way when their thank you doesn’t land with you.

Next time one of your patients says thank you, try these four quick and simple steps.

1. Recognize what’s happening. You did a good job. The patient recognizes the difference you have made in their life. Maybe you actually saved their life this time. They are truly grateful. They want to say “thank you” out loud. We all know how rare this occasion is in most practices. This is a special occasion when both of you can connect on a deeper level of humanity than just “doing your job.”

2. Stop. Turn to face them squarely. Look them in the eye.

3. Slow down. Take a deep in and out breath. Allow their gratitude and acknowledgment for your care to soak in to your body, in all the right places just the right amounts.

4. Tell them “you’re welcome” in whatever way feels authentic for you. Here’s a potential example: “You’re so welcome. Taking care of people like you is why I became a doctor. I am so glad you’re feeling better.”

If you use a journal, I strongly encourage you to write about this experience later on that day.

When you accept gratitude in this fashion, you will notice that it provides you a burst of energy and fulfillment for days afterwards. Energetic deposits from interactions like this are what prevent physician burnout. Don’t miss these opportunities.

And if you have to search weeks, or months, or years to remember a fulfilling patient encounter like this, it’s high time to look at what you really want in your practice and start moving in that direction.

Dike Drummond is a family physician and founder, The Happy MD.

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  • Patient Kit

    I thank my doc at every visit, every phone call, every fax. I think I kind of imagine every patient doing that. His responses are usually very humble, saying something like “We both got very lucky.” or “I’m happy to do anything I can to help you.” I’ve also made it clear that I know that, as an oncologist, all of his patients have cancer — not just me — and many of them are going through much worse than me. I know that in his specialty, he has to have some very bad, hard days. I hope that knowing that I truly appreciate everything he’s done for me somehow helps balance those bad moments a tiny bit. Regardless, I plan on continuing to express my sincere gratitude.

  • http://www.CommunicatingWithPatients.com/ Edward Leigh, MA

    Hi Dike:
    As always, excellent information!
    Your article reminded me of a tip I recently came across. When a person thanks
    you for something, NEVER say, “no problem.”
    This response minimizes the action performed to warrant the thank you.
    It is like saying what you did was nothing significant … no big deal. What doctors do is VERY significant. Thanks
    again for the terrific article. Best to you.

  • Alene Nitzky

    Great advice, and by doing these things you’re creating even greater healing power for the patient and yourself. It’ the ultimate motivator for me, to hear patients thank me and accept their thanks while showing genuine gratitude for their feedback. Funny how by doing this, it seems to multiply…

  • leslie fay

    My husband spent 2 years after his cancer diagnosis having multiple surgeries and rounds of chemo followed by hospitalizations for sepsis-all of the usual B.S. that accompanies such a diagnosis and removal of lymph nodes in your legs. This spring he finally felt like a human being again so we went on a trip and I took a photo of him by the ocean with a glass of champagne. We enclosed a copy of this photo with note that said: A toast! Happy Birthday to me-because of YOU! A birthday I was not at all sure I would ever see. Then a couple of sentences addressing specifics for each Dr. They were all so amazing, we are convinced that without their specific expertise he might not have survived and would certainly not be living life as close to normal as he is currently.

    • EmilyAnon

      What a thoughtful and clever way to say thank you to your husband’s medical team. I’m sure that picture was worth a thousand words.