A smiling doctor, speaking with an elderly patient.

Enhancing the patient experience

Sometimes patients can feel like a number.

Thanks to ever-busier hospitals, increased focus on efficiency, and clinicians’ desire to provide the best level of treatment to the most patients possible, there isn’t always a lot of time to build a trusting relationship with your patients. Thankfully, however, enhancing a patient experience and providing that extra level of care can often be achieved with small measures like a smile or touch through physical exam.

According to Health System Management (English only)1, “it only takes 56 seconds to make a meaningful human connection with a patient.” This can be done by discovering a shared hobby, favourite food, or musician. Simply finding a common bond can help create that important trusting relationship.

In addition to verbal communication, trusting relationships are reinforced with regular and thorough physical examinations. Patients will often be more forthcoming if they feel the examining medical professional is taking the time to truly get to know them, their body and their condition. The familiar and comforting touch of a physical exam can send a message that the clinician cares even it no words are exchanged and that trust can be expressed.

Stethoscopes are frequently used in physical exam and often literally serve as a point of contact between patient and clinician. Stethoscopes not only play a clinical role in auscultation findings, but also act as one of the clinician’s greatest assets to connect with the patient. Accordingly, if clinicians opt to listen with the stethoscope over their patient’s gown or don’t complete a thorough exam, they are missing an opportunity to build patient trust.

M. Thomas Stillman, MD, FACP at Hennepin County Medical Center, served as an Undergraduate Medical Education Director for University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, where he teaches the art of auscultation. Stillman agrees about the value of touch in an exam.

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  • A physician showing his stethoscope to a baby who is being held by his mother.

    "It only takes 56 seconds to make a meaningful human connection with a patient."

    Health System Management - Magazine

“Technology without careful explanation and patient understanding can be isolating and we cannot let it create barriers between us and the personal connection we have with our patients” he says. “Maintaining the doctor-patient relationship requires adaptation to technology not submission to it. Sitting in the patient’s exam room, staring at the computer screen with little or no direct patient eye contact is like reading a book while talking to someone. Our patients need our undivided attention. Step back from your computers, sit beside your patient, talk patiently to them, and most important, they must feel we are listening and absorbing their story.”

Teaching auscultation is important to Stillman because of its ability to bone the patient and doctor together. He says that the ritual is very important and it’s something that should be maintained rather than replaced.

As he teaches increasingly younger generation, or as he calls them, “technology natives,” Stillman stresses the value of patient interaction.

“The future medical professionals are interested in building connections with people beyond devices and electronics because it brings back why they want to go into medicine in the first place. They want to physically connect to the process in making an accurate diagnosis.”

While there are many ways to make a connection, the stethoscope serves as both a practical and emotional way to connect with patients. It helps to find a path towards diagnosis, but can also serve as an opening to a trusting, caring relationship.

As Stillman says, “The stethoscope connects the doctor to the heart of the patient.”