How Doctors Can Build Trust With Their Patients

By Tiffani Sherman
August 25, 2017

Developing a deeper relationship can benefit physicians as well as those they treat.

Trust is a key to any good relationship. A 2017 study says patients who trust their doctors feel better overall, have fewer complaints and have a higher quality of life.

Research from the University of Basel in Switzerland and Harvard Medical School found increased trust did not necessarily improve clinical outcomes, but did affect overall well-being.

“In the old days, they used to call it bedside manner,” says Ann Park, MD, a psychiatrist and certified wellness coach based in Tampa, Florida. “The doctor-patient relationship has the word ‘relationship’ in it, and every good relationship is built on trust.”

The ability to help people is why many people became physicians, Park says.

“It’s a caring profession and I do think establishing that bond is a key piece of healing,” she says. “The medical piece is necessary, but I don’t know if it’s fully sufficient. It’s extremely rewarding to help someone and make that connection.”

So, in today’s fast-paced world, how can doctors help build trust with their patients? Park has some advice.

EYE CONTACT: It is an important way of building an instant bond. It conveys attention, focus and caring. If a patient is sitting down or in a bed, pull up a chair and interact on the same level, Park says.

“Get on eye level with them so they feel you’re there to listen to them. It shows you’re not in a hurry to leave.”

Also, look at the patient when speaking and listening, rather than at charts or devices.

LIGHT TOUCH: If circumstances are appropriate, “touch definitely conveys caring,” Park says. A hand on a shoulder or on the patient’s hand can show the patient you can understand his or her pain and stress.

“Touch is a powerful human connection point,” Park says.

But be careful — make only proper contact, and usually only if someone else is in the room. That way, the intention cannot be misinterpreted.

LISTEN: It sounds like a given, but when a patient is talking, actually listening goes a long way to building trust.

“Everyone wants to feel heard, especially when they’re vulnerable,” Park says.

Ask open-ended questions — “How are you doing?” — instead of pinpointed ones. Targeted questions might help you get to the point more quickly, but it does not convey caring, Park says.

“Listen, and after you listen, reflect back on what you heard.”

That shows a patient you got the message.

Park says putting her three suggestions into practice might mean spending a little extra time with a patient, but not much.

“They’re simple and you can execute them in a very short period of time,” she says. “The difference between doing them and not doing them is something the patients remember.”

It can also make a physician feel more fulfilled and reduce burnout.

“To make an attempt to put some of that in every interaction will be good for the patient and good for the physician,” Park says.              

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance health care journalist based in Florida.

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