Patients rank doctors on confidence, empathy, other intangibles

November 1, 2006

Good communication, experts say, can impact overall care - as well as a practice's bottom line.

"That's because they didn't listen to me, or what I had to say," she says. "Mostly, they talked to me in medical jargon that I couldn't understand. It was like I went for Botox treatments, and that's exactly what I got. After receiving treatments, I was walking around like I had a permanent frown on my face."

The subtle art of communicating, both verbally and nonverbally, is at the heart of building the doctor-patient relationship, experts say. Good communication helps to break down barriers and create a level of synergy and trust, so that doctors can offer the most effective treatments and help patients achieve the best outcomes.

"(Dermatology) patients may not be in overt pain, like they are in some other specialties, but their pain may be hidden, more of a psychological pain," says Leonard L. Berry, Ph.D., distinguished professor of marketing and professor of humanities in Medicine at Texas A&M University's Mays Business School.

Positive effects

Good communication, experts say, can impact overall care - as well as a practice's bottom line.

It can go a long way toward reducing the incidence of malpractice claims.

Dr. William Keeler, 78, a retired orthopedic surgeon living in St. Petersburg, Fla., recently underwent Mohs surgery for removal of a squamous cell carcinoma on his scalp.

"I had been on the patient side a number of times because I have had some surgery over the years," he says, "so this really wasn't an eye-opener for me. But it is something that I went into anxiously."

But the doctor who treated him put his mind at ease, Dr. Keeler says.

"He was exceedingly professional and explained exactly how the procedure would be performed," Dr. Keeler says. "He explained how they would do four sectionings, and how they would analyze each section between procedures.

"By the end of four sessions, there was no tumor remaining, and I didn't need any skin grafts, which I was told was a possibility."

An empathetic relationship between a doctor and patient "is absolutely essential," Dr. Keeler says, "because the more understanding there is between the patient and doctor, the less chance there is of any surprise down the road."

What patients want

Experts say that most patients - who lack formal medical training and a sophisticated appreciation for the physician's technical skills - rely on intangibles to evaluate the treatment they receive, sometimes even before the outcome.