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Easy ways to make every patient feel special.

Author/s: Elizabeth A. Pector
Issue: Sept 21, 1998

The worst medical experience I've endured - as a patient - was the unexpected death of one of my twins at 33 weeks' gestation.

My doctors uttered two unfortunate phrases I'll never forget. The first was a vague "We're having trouble seeing twin B, and you have to get to the hospital." I had to ask if it was the heartbeat he was having trouble "seeing."

Hours later, a consultant and a radiologist reviewed twin A's ultrasound in my hospital room while my husband (who's not a physician) was with me. One doctor asked his colleague, across my distended abdomen: "One more thing. You do confirm the demise of twin B?" That's how we learned for sure that our son was dead, since all doctors involved erroneously assumed that someone else had told us.

Bedside manner doesn't get much worse than that - but it can be much better. There are good ways to deliver bad news, and myriad techniques for building good patient relations. As one who has spent considerable time on both sides of the doctor-patient relationship, here's what has worked for me:

Find something interesting about each patient. Maybe it's his job, a recent trip, a favorite sport, a fascinating hobby, or pride in her family. Make note of this, and ask about it on subsequent visits.

My life has been immeasurably enriched by patients, and I believe much of the reason lies in my effort to see them as interesting, valuable people I am privileged to serve. Through my patients, I've received handmade gifts for my children, clothing from overseas, a CD with a patient's original music, and good prices on jewelry. One even located my birth father, enabling me to have a meaningful reunion with him.

Give each one something to take home. Don't limit your handouts to printed materials. Refer patients to support groups or health classes, and let them know about Internet resources.

I've begun searching the Internet for medically sound information on patients' health concerns. In five to 10 minutes, I can find high-quality advice. I'd rather do an educated search for patients than leave them on their own to find dangerous quackery on the Net.

I've also referred patients to support groups for a wide range of concerns: substance abuse, homosexuality, obesity, eating disorders, pregnancy loss, Alzheimer's disease, divorce, grief, and adoption. These groups can complement your own advice and help patients to help themselves.

Empathize with your patient's suffering. For years I was beset by severe migraines. It helped to know that my physicians had experienced the same malady and that they understood its debilitating effect. I share my own insights freely when they can benefit a patient who faces a predicament I've encountered myself.

Offer hope, and give hugs. Throughout the years of headaches, my neurologist never destroyed my hope that another treatment option would be available if the current regimen failed. His knowledge of medical and non-medical therapies, willingness to listen, and optimistic attitude kept me going through seemingly endless pain.

continued ...

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  Terms related to this article: Medicine / Practice , Physician and patient / Analysis
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