An excerpt from The Mumbo Jumbo Fix: A Survival Guide for Effective Doctor-Patient-Nurse Communication.
When advertising agencies launch a new ad campaign, one of their popular strategies is the testimonial. As consumers, we see testimonials all the time in both print and electronic media. The spokesperson may be a familiar celebrity or an unknown personality but they all possess a certain credibility of character. Whether it’s anti-wrinkle cream from a pretty model or a reverse mortgage from an aging actor, they all command our attention. They convey a sense of trustworthiness, authority, and likability. Their presence is persuasive and we often succumb to their Message. These are the Ultimate Senders.
Health care providers need to become Ultimate Senders of the Messages they relate to their Receivers. They need to be credible, trustworthy, and likable. That is—if they want to positively impact their patient audience. And in my experience, no one enters the healing arts without a desire to help others and make a positive impact on their chosen profession.
Like it or not, the pressure to meet the consuming public’s high expectations has never been greater—fueled by internet research and slick media. Patients routinely consult physician and hospital consumer websites to make decisions who to see and where to go. Their satisfaction with a recent hospitalization is measured by post-discharge governmental surveys. Health care delivery systems look at physician and nurse performance. Insurance companies track patient experience. We’re awash in data and social media opinions. All providers are being evaluated by others. It is incumbent on the provider to do a bit of self-analysis. How do I really come across? Do patients find me credible, trustworthy, and likable? In other words, would I be hired for a testimonial?
Credibility springs from inner confidence. You know what you’re talking about. You speak confidently with quiet assurance. This is not the same as boasting. Confidence comes from knowledge, experience, and education. Admitting you’re not perfect can be a virtue. Few things are as attractive as humility. Admitting you are still learning inspires confidence, especially in the dynamic, ever-changing world of medicine. Credibility also comes from modeling the behaviors you espouse. No one believes a hypocrite. And as the saying goes: “No one buys a diet from a fat man.”
Trustworthiness comes from truth-telling. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Candidly acknowledge no one can guarantee a specific medical outcome. Be upfront about risks and benefits. Be clear and consistent in the Messages you deliver. Always follow through on what you promise
Baby-faced new doctors have special challenges to establish trustworthiness. Don’t dissemble about your lack of experience. Poke fun at your youthful appearance. Honesty is disarming and refreshing. But as a newly minted doctor, your knowledge about the most current medical science is probably greater than many more experienced practitioners. And older doctors, perhaps those nearing retirement, shouldn’t shy away from mentioning their on-going education to stay current with medical knowledge and the latest surgical techniques.
Likeability is simply being a nice person—warm, kind, caring, friendly, and interested in others. Patients actually expect their providers—doctors and nurses—to be human, approachable, and empathetic. In fact, 65 percent of patient satisfaction has been attributed to physician empathy. The “old school” notion of the emotionally remote doctor dispensing advice to the appropriately appreciative patient may never have been true, but it certainly is not the current state of medical practice.
Admittedly, those physicians in non-patient-centered fields like pathology don’t face quite the same expectations of likability, at least from patients. But it’s probably a trait much appreciated by their peers and work colleagues! However, for doctors with regular patient contact, such as pediatricians, it should come as no surprise the number one trait sought in a new pediatrician is “warm and friendly.”
Before the public’s obsession with ratings, it was the presumed and tolerated stereotype that surgeons lacked proper bedside manners. “If they were good with a knife, they were good enough.” No longer. Surgical specialties—general, orthopedic, cardiac, neurosurgical—have the highest volume of insurance malpractice claims among all medical groups, according to a national benchmarking report released in 2019. It seems the public is looking for more than operating room skills. Pre- and post-operative contact with a likable and approachable surgeon is also important.
Regardless of specialty and medical outcome, claims data reveals this truth—it is easier for a patient to sue a doctor they don’t really know than one they have come to hold in high personal regard. It makes sense. From the outset, did the doctor forge a team spirit with the patient and family? Did everyone have a sense they were pulling together to attain the same goal? Did the doctor take the time to share his humanity? If so, the patient will think twice before suing. On the other hand, who cares about someone no more tangible than the blur of a white coat racing between examination rooms?
Michael J. Grace is an attorney and author of The Mumbo Jumbo Fix: A Survival Guide for Effective Doctor-Patient-Nurse Communication.