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Communications – The Business
of Medicine

Steve Clements and Claudia Coplon

It’s all there in the business plan: what you want to accomplish, how you would like to grow your practice.  Unfortunately, those are just words – albeit well thought out words – on paper.  You must still determine how to differentiate your practice in the minds of patients, within the community, and even to your peers.

Study after study and article after article substantiates the key differentiator is successful communications.  In fact, a recent USA Today1 piece indicated that, by the fall of 2004, fourth-year medical students will be graded on their ability to communicate clearly and develop trust during 15-minute videotaped encounters with a dozen “patients.”  (One of the five testing centers is in Atlanta.)  Clearly, the medical community is growing increasingly aware of communications’ role in the success of a practice.

This should come as no surprise. Communications represents 70%-90% of activities in the work environment, 45% of which is time spent listening.  Increase those figures for physicians who will see 120,000 to 160,000 patients in a 40-year professional career2.  Most will spend an average of six hours each day just listening.  Even for those with strong interpersonal skills, this is a hefty burden on top of other time demands, and office and staffing constraints.

So how does a physician in today’s bottom-line medicine weave in an emphasis on communications?  After all, you are already being paid less for what you do in a world where everything cost more.  The solution is to begin making in-roads in listening and communicating with your three key audiences.

With Patients

Health care is expensive, even for those with the best possible insurance, and a major investment for those without.  Therefore, physicians must endeavor to give every patient the best possible experience for the money.  Yet, according to a 1999 study,3 physicians give patients less than 24 seconds to communicate their health concerns before interrupting to narrow down the problem.  Even more telling, most patients allowed to complete their opening statement without interruption took less than 60 seconds and none longer than 150 seconds, even when encouraged to continue.  Not a huge amount of time to garner patient comfort, especially when patients who don’t feel they are being heard take their medical needs – and dollars elsewhere.

Keep in mind, patients judge their physician on four aspects of communications: personal interactions, questions and explanations, trust and manner of listening4.  To use this to advantage during:

  • Personal Interactions – Demonstrate friendliness, caring, and respect for the patient.  Make him feel unique – even though
    50% of your patients may have similar complaints.
  • Questions and Explanations –  Pause to digest the information you hear and your method of feedback.  Keep conversations on track.  Listen without interrupting and ask clarifying questions as you take notes. Tailor your language to avoid complex terminology or medical jargon.
  • Trust – Make an extra effort to build trust, to demonstrate your integrity, competence and role as the patient’s agent.  Starting with the first friendly handshake, use nonverbal communications to establish and maintain patient confidence.
  • Physician Knowledge of the Patient –Don’t rush in the room or appear poised to leave as soon as possible. Sit down and look into your patient’s eyes. Look at the patient rather than the chart.

It is the way you come across, rather than your expertise, on which your patients are going to assess you.

With Staff

Being a successful physician is no longer just practicing medicine.  It’s a business, with you as the employer supervising employees who can “make or break” your business.  Their sense of morale, their understanding of the attitude you bring to your practice are reflected in their patient interactions.  Therefore your effective “bedside manner” must extend to include your staff.  To keep staff from looking for jobs elsewhere, communicate.

  • Develop Office Systems and Establish Protocols  – Maintain direct verbal contact with the staff as often as possible so you are seen, not simply as the practitioner, but rather as the employer who has set and oversees these protocols.  This includes setting the tone and approach used from the first contact patients make by telephone and continued through follow-up communications after the patient leaves the office.
  • Take Time to Know Your Staff – Talk with them, listen to what they have to say. After all, they are the major link to current patients and patients, peers and the community.
  • Create a Style through Leadership – Demonstrate care, respect and integrity towards patients in the office or after they leave sets a high bar.  This discourages jokes, snide criticism or disrespect among the staff when you are not present.
  • Include Staff in Office Planning and Operation – Discuss future plans and get staff input on job descriptions, performance criteria, evaluations, changes, etc.

Within The Community

Establishing awareness outside the office is essential to meeting goals set in the business plan.  To begin communicating with your community and peers:

  • Community Lectures – Offer entertaining and informative lectures through hospital and organizational-based wellness programs.  The visibility gained through promotional materials and your demonstrated ability to communicate to an audience of potential patients are very cost-effective marketing tools.
  • Volunteer Activities – Participate in healthcare hotline campaigns offered by your local medical associations.  Outside the healthcare arena, take an active role in church, neighborhood and/or school activities.
  • Peer Group Activities – Attend and communicate with potential referral physicians at hospital and organizational networking events.

Again, by demonstrating your ability to listen, pay attention and respond appropriately, you gain both name awareness and a reputation as a good communicator.

Communications Brings the Business Plan To Fruition

Communication skills become even more important when an adverse outcome occurs or a patient is less than satisfied.  In fact, these issues are often at the crux of many medical malpractice claims.  Typically claims apparently trigger from emotional and psychological factors that give rise to suits.

Today, medicine is a science and a business – the business of communications.  Without effective communications, the science loses much of its potency and the patient loses the confidence to trust his healing to you.

Bottom line, when patients, staff, peers and community are judging you, it is not your medical expertise that is in question.  Your vita speaks for itself.  What makes you special, what sets you apart from others are your communications skills.  Communication techniques are a learned skill.  Develop them and utilize them for maximum success.

As appeared in the Metro Atlanta edition of M.D. News, a business and lifestyle magazine for physicians.

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