If there is one thing I learned across my career in social services, education and healthcare, it's how significant empathy is. The days of delivering clinical services stoically and unemotionally are long gone. Administrative and medical professionals now recognize that compassion can affect health outcomes and that caring communication is vital in making patients feel optimistic and motivated.
Of late, the pandemic has magnified the importance of staying connected with patients. Current statistics show that citizens worldwide are feeling staggering levels of stress and anxiety. Women and younger Canadians are especially vulnerable, with 52% of women and 54% of young adults (age 18 to 24) reporting high levels of distress1. The long-term psychological consequences of collective trauma can last a decade or more2. We could be dealing with the health fallout long after the masks have been put away, which signals a need for change in how we connect with one another.
It often doesn't take much to relate to a patient authentically. I remember one particular woman, Stella*, who was afraid of going outside because of the shame of having a mental illness. I offered, "Yes, we're both alive and sick and living in Vancouver. Let's go to work." It was a line from the 1978 film La Cage aux Folles, and it still cracks me up! What is probably cracking you up more is the film’s date and the fact I can recall it when many of you were not even born yet. Let's get back to my story. Stella and I would howl with laughter, followed by working together to create a plan for venturing into society. Our conversations were less stilted, less separated by role and filled with warmth and mutual respect. Empathy takes practice, but it's a skill that can be learned by all. The following are strategies for creating meaningful connections in your healthcare practice:
1. Provide a personalized experience
Create a sense of belonging for your patients by greeting them with their first name. Additionally, take the time to learn their children’s names and even what they do for work.
2. Listen actively
We're all guilty of running late and having to rush each conversation. Now is the time to take extra care, especially in interactions that last only minutes. Put down your pen, look away from the computer screen and listen with the intent to help. Hear how their lives and how their needs have changed during the pandemic.
3. Help clients and patients feel secure about their future health
Much of the anxiety people are feeling today is due to the lack of control that the pandemic has brought. Help patients feel secure about their future health by talking about preventative care and strategies for things they can control.
4. Be a collaborator
Like with Stella*, every patient deserves to feel like they are in control of their health. Our rapport made it so that I was no longer a healthcare provider telling her what to do, but a collaborator, working towards the same goals.
5. Use technology to increase accessibility
Encourage patients to go to you for information, not Google. Create patient resources on your website, or share information through social media. Show your patients that you value their time and provide a digital alternative to contacting your practice that doesn't involve being on hold.
And let’s not forget ourselves - patients are not the only ones feeling exhausted. We need our peers’ support to stay positive and energized. Seek opportunities to rejuvenate by learning a new skill or connecting with a peer group who share the same struggles. Know your local resources and get to know other practitioners that can support your practice. The only way we are going to get through this unusual time is together. And that is exactly what we can communicate to our patients through these strategies.
Sometimes, all it takes is a sense of humour, some earnest eye contact, and smiling eyes that masks can't hide. And although we can't control how a patient feels or how they will feel tomorrow, we can undoubtedly provide a sincere front, one that says we authentically care, and one that will be remembered by patients in years to come.
Have questions about connecting with patients or want to share a story? Join us for Medical Management Mondays to meet Marilyn and other healthcare professionals with frontier expertise.
*Names have been changed to protect patient privacy.
- CTVNews: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/canadians-stress-levels-increasing-during-coronavirus-pandemic-nanos-survey-1.4927588
- Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2020/05/28/10-eye-opening-statistics-on-the-mental-health-impact-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic/?sh=42ea32de2df0