Improving Patient Relationships – What I Told the Providers

To say my trek to Alaska was overwhelmingly positive wouldn’t begin to touch the real experience. Alaska itself was glaciers, salmon, midnight sun, king crab legs, and learning that in Fairbanks everyone has an extension cord popping out the front of their cars, so they can plug them in during the winter to keep the engine and oil from freezing. Who knew?

But the most fulfilling experience was working with the people who attended the workshops I taught. Warm, open, receptive, fun, willing to participate and learn, they were doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, nurse educators, dieticians, pharmacists, a psychiatrist, front desk people, techs of all flavors – you name it, they were there.

Since this invitation to speak to providers first came along last February, I have looked forward to the opportunity with excitement – and a bit of apprehension. I’ve often stated my own disapproval of doctors who write books to tell patients how to be smart patients. I consider it to be a bit like the doctor-foxes telling us chicken-patients how to behave in the hen house.

So it was a little unnerving to realize that, in effect, I was doing almost the same thing – being the patient-fox telling the provider chickens how to behave in THEIR hen house! But my apprehension was unfounded. I was well received – even embraced.

The topic: Improving Patient Relationships. The basis: The health systems in Alaska are mostly government-based. A large percentage of the residents are either military, or military veterans, or native Alaskans who get free healthcare – many of whom have a sense of entitlement and little patience for a system that isn’t ready to serve them at the very moment they want to be served in the very manner they want to be served. It won’t surprise you to learn that there is a lot of frustration to go around. The goal: to provide tools to these providers to help them serve their patients better by improving the relationships they develop.

So here, in a nutshell (keeping in mind that we did seven hours of this each day!) is what I hope they took away from our sessions:

When patients seek healthcare, particularly when they are nervous or scared, then they are also feeling vulnerable – like they have lost control.

As providers, part of their job is to try to restore some of that sense of control, to help their patients feel less vulnerable. To do so, they should use these tools:

A: Acknowledge their patients: be respectful, listen, listen, listen, empathize, be professional, open, honest and friendly

M: Manage their expectations: always let them know what to expect next (or what the possible next steps are), encourage responsibility, tell them what to do if something unexpected happens

P: Provide resources: help their patients understand anatomy, provide printed materials or weblinks, encourage them to read drug enclosures, have a nurse available to answer questions

Through those three actions, they will develop and enjoy good relationships with their patients.

Of course, there will always be patients who are difficult to work with, just as there will always be providers who are difficult, too. But (at least) the 80-20 rule should apply.

These are tools that you, as an advocate, can use with your clients, too. So much of our work with our clients is about easing their minds. One way to accomplish that is to help to make them feel less vulnerable, giving them back some of their control. At the very time they feel most helpless, you can be there to support them.

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Photo: The Portage Glacier south of Anchorage

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