Stop Doing These 3 Things When Communicating With Patients

by | Feb 14, 2022 | Business Management, Patient Experience

Doctors and healthcare professionals spend a large part of their day talking to patients. They discuss the patient’s health and medical conditions, available treatments, clinical research, and a host of other topics. They invest in the latest technology to provide the highest level of care and also create a Wow factor for the patient. And yet, doctors frequently communicate in ways that hinder the patient’s willingness to make positive lifestyle or behavioral changes.

Through research, we’re learning more about people’s motivations regarding their health and well-being. It’s important that we communicate in ways that build a connection and trust, and avoid doing things that are counterproductive to healthy change.

Below I’ll discuss 3 things you should stop doing to avoid a “disconnect” with patients that prevents action.


“Most doctors and healthcare experts conduct thorough case histories on all patients and take the time to fully diagnose and understand each patient’s unique needs and concerns.”

Is that accurate?

According to research, physicians interrupt patients (on average) within eighteen seconds of when they begin telling their story. When doctors think they have the answer, they stop asking questions. If the patient is inhibited, cut off prematurely, or constrained into one path of discussion, then the doctor may not be told something vital.

Also contributing to poor communication is the patient’s impression that you are either in a hurry or lacking empathy for their condition, which leads to the patient withholding further information.

This often culminates in patient’s leaving your office thinking, “My doctor didn’t listen to me.” Patients who don’t feel heard are less likely to act on your recommendations, and more likely to find another doctor.

It’s important to ask open ended questions when you’re not sure of the diagnosis. Closed-ended questions are often designed to confirm a diagnosis and can take a doctor down the wrong track. Open-ended questions maximize the opportunity to hear new information.


Another downside to not fully uncovering the patient’s concerns is that it leads us to project onto the patient what should be important to him or her, which can sound like we’re being judgmental or lecturing the patient.

In the book How Doctors Think by Dr. Jerome Groopman, he discusses how patients and clinicians often have different views on the importance of health goals. Doctors frequently have inaccurate perceptions of patient’s health beliefs, often assuming what’s important to the doctor is important to the patient.

There are certainly times when doctors need to be assertive with patient care. This may be the case with a patient who is noncompliant with a medication or treatment plan and their condition is worsening.

However, there is also a lot of research showing patients want to be involved with their care. Not only do they want to be involved, but fewer than 50 percent are satisfied with their level of control with decision-making.

When patients are involved in their care (patient-centered care), they are more likely to stick with treatment regimens and less likely to regret their decisions. Also noteworthy, malpractice claims decline when patients feel a sense of involvement and control with their care.

Taking the time to learn about your patient’s reasons for wanting to do something, and then supporting their reasons, will give the patient a sense of involvement in their care and likely lead to enhanced outcomes.


Public speaking has taught me a lot about becoming a better communicator. Early in my speaking career I had a speaking coach who told me something I’ll always remember.

Great communicators don’t take the simple and make it complex, they take the complex and make it simple.

My coach steered me away from “death by bullet point” and the need to cram as much information as I could into a 50-minute presentation. He told me that too much information is overwhelming to the listener, and I was leaving people confused, not inspired. People’s brains only have so much capacity for processing new information. Don’t overload them.

The same applies in the exam room. Your patients are human beings, not information receptacles. Strive for compactness, not oversimplification. Also consider that information is quickly forgotten, so what do you want them to remember days, weeks or months later? Decide what NEEDS to be said versus what could be included in a brochure or some reading materials they take home.

From a financial standpoint, educating patients on your products and services is wise, but educating to the point of confusion is counterproductive. In the words of famed author and influence expert Dr. Robert Cialdini, “Confused people don’t buy anything.”

All of this points to the immense value of good communication skills in the exam room. Good communication should enhance trust and likeability between doctor and patient, which leads to improved compliance and clinical outcomes.

By Steve Vargo, OD

Exploring best practices in building and sustaining practice growth.


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