Pearl of the Month

Tips for connecting with your patients


It is a tough time to be a doctor. With the stresses of the pandemic, the continued unfettered rise of insurance company BS, and so many medical groups being bought up that we often don’t even know who makes the decisions, the patient can sometimes be hidden in the equation.

What are ways that we can connect well with our patients so that both the patient and the physician are lifted up by the relationship?

Dr. Paauw

Dr. Paauw

Be curious

When physicians are curious about why patients have symptoms, how those symptoms will affect their lives, and how worried the patient is about them, patients feel cared about.

Ascertaining how concerned patients are about their symptoms will help you make decisions on whether symptoms you are not concerned about actually need to be treated.

Limit use of EHRs when possible

Use of the electronic health record during visits is essential, but focusing on it too much can put a barrier between the physician and the patient.

Marmor and colleagues found there is an inverse relationship between time spent on the EHR by a patient’s physician and the patient’s satisfaction.1

Eye contact with the patient is important, especially when patients are sharing concerns they are scared about and upsetting experiences. There can be awkward pauses when looking things up on the EHR. Fill those pauses by explaining to the patient what you are doing, or chatting with the patient.

Consider teaching medical students

When a medical student works with you, it doubles the time the patient gets with a concerned listener. Students also can do a great job with timely follow-up and checking in with worried patients.

By having the student present in the clinic room, with the patient present, the patient can really feel heard. The student shares all the details the patient shared, and now their physician is hearing an organized, thoughtful report of the patients concerns.

In fact, I was involved in a study that showed that patients preferred in room presentations, and that they were more satisfied when students presented in the room.2

Use healing words

Some words carry loaded emotions. The word chronic, for example, has negative connotations, whereas the term persisting does not.

I will often ask patients how long they have been suffering from a symptom to imply my concern for what they are going through. The term “chief complaint” is outdated, and upsets patients when they see it in their medical record.

As a patient of mine once said to me: “I never complained about that problem, I just brought it to your attention.” No one wants to be seen as a complainer. Substituting the word concern for complaint works well.

Explain as you examine

People love to hear the term normal. When you are examining a patient, let them know when findings are normal.

I also find it helpful to explain to patients why I am doing certain physical exam maneuvers. This helps them assess how thorough we are in our thought process.

When patients feel their physicians are thorough, they have more confidence in them.

In summary

  • Be curious.
  • Do not overly focus on the EHR.
  • Consider teaching a medical student.
  • Be careful of word choice.
  • “Overexplain” the physical exam.

Dr. Paauw is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and serves as 3rd-year medical student clerkship director at the University of Washington. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News. Dr. Paauw has no conflicts to disclose. Contact him at


1. Marmor RA et al. Appl Clin Inform. 2018 Jan;9(1):11-4.

2. Rogers HD et al. Acad Med. 2003 Sep;78(9):945-9.

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