A doctor is working down their long list of patients, powering through the day, striving to use their skills to get them better. Some of the patients will be follow-ups who they already know; others will be brand new patients, who they are meeting for the first time. Of course, the job of any doctor is first and foremost to heal their patient in whatever way they can. That’s what all the medical school and residency training was all about: to get them to a position where they can safely and competently do this. But the crucial aspect of health care which is notoriously under-taught, is how to communicate with your patients. That’s most of what any doctor does, and a fundamental universal truth in health care, as I’ve written about previously.
We are slowly getting better at this, and it’s being taught more in medical schools, but we still simply don’t think about this anywhere near enough. After physicians graduate and are thrown out onto the medical floors, they quickly realize that it’s the bulk of what practicing medicine is all about. That’s why we need to foster the skills necessary to maximize ones’ communication potential (remember, it’s not only important for success with your patients, but also for success on the career ladder and everything else you do in life). The ability to communicate well is everything.
On that note, what could be more important than making a great first impression whenever a doctor meets a patient for the first time? As doctors, it should be our absolute goal to start building a relationship of trust right from that very first meeting with a patient, and get off to a flying start. Because if a patient doesn’t develop that feeling of trust, and yes — also likeability, towards you, you may as well pack up and go home — because that patient will already be thinking about how they can get another doctor. It’s human nature, and we don’t have very long to make a good impression. Did you know, research actually suggests whenever we meet someone for the first time, that judgment about the other person will be formed in only the first few seconds? Yes, about seven seconds to be precise. This happens with anyone, even a random person on the street, but is especially important for a doctor to keep in mind. In those first several seconds, we as humans are primed to judge the other person’s friendliness, cooperation, and competence. This happens at an entirely subconscious level, and is believed to go back to caveman dies, even before speech started, when we had to make snap judgments about the other person very quickly. We can debate whether those first impressions are always right or not, but they do get imprinted in our minds, and we all know from our own experiences that it’s very difficult to come back from a bad first impression.
Speaking as somebody who regularly teaches communication skills and has coached a lot of physicians on this, even the most hardened physician is very responsive when they are told (diplomatically of course) that they can do better and improve their skills in this area. Nobody wants to hear that they come across badly when they meet new people!
So for any doctor, what types of things can you do in those first seven seconds to make a better impression on your patient? Here are just three:
1. Facial expression. This is obviously the first thing that someone will notice when they look at you. Few things could be better received than a genuine smile (known as a “Duchenne smile”) and a facial expression that conveys friendliness. Of course, smiling doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but is the most simple thing you can do if you want to appear approachable or trustworthy. The opposite of this would be looking stern, closed off, or worst of all, uninterested in the person in front of you.
2. Eye contact. Maintain constant eye contact in those first few seconds. Don’t glance at the patient and then look away instantly — whether it’s to look at your chart, a medication hanging from the IV line, to find a chair — or anything else! Without getting into the psychological and scientific reasons why this is important, and I could talk for a very long time on this: just think of it as telling the patient they have your full undivided attention at this low point in their lives.
3. Body posture and movements. Does your body posture and the way you first greet the patient display an aura of calmness and competence, or does it do something quite opposite? If you are clearly in a rush, hurried or looking tense yourself — your patient will sense that in a second. Even the way you walk into the room, upright and confident versus slouching and hesitant (hopefully very few doctors do that) will get processed in an instant. Your goal is to radiate that you are calm and a good listener.
These are just three brief things you can do to make a great first impression that says you are a friendly, caring and competent physician. Even for a highly educated professional like a doctor, you cannot escape the laws of human nature and behavior, and you can have a list of publications as long as your arm — but it will come to naught if you don’t understand how to communicate.
Think about the first several seconds you meet someone.
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