One of the first lessons learned in private practice was that a good number of patients thought I was a jerk. My partner actually sat me down and told me that he had received feedback from a number of patients who said they felt that I was uncaring and did not listen to them very well. At the end of that year I received the results of a random survey of my patients that confirmed the fact that I was failing to communicate and connect much of the time. I was devastated. Having always prided myself on my communication skills it was more than humbling to discover that this was perceived to be the area where I most needed to improve.
I wish I could say I turned it around right then and that my next survey results were glowing. I can’t and they weren’t. I tried, tried really hard, but improvement was elusive. It took almost 10 years to truly turn the corner. Looking back now I can see what made the difference and see how simple it could have been. Here are a few of the realizations that led to lasting change.
- I learned that I was more concerned with medicine than I was with caring about the patient. In my mind I felt that if I was medically correct (prescribed the right drug, made the correct diagnosis or referred to the right specialist) that I had done my job well. When I made the patient’s feelings and understanding them the top priority, I was able to connect.
- I learned there was more to life than being right. I used to get particularly grumpy when a patient would ask for an unnecessary procedure or test. I think of one patient who wanted an MRI 2 days after a minor knee injury. I told him it was unnecessary and he was angry. My answer was technically correct, but it lacked understanding. If I had taken the time to set aside my offendedness and learn why he was so worried about his knee I might have salvaged the relationship.
- I realized I expected too much from people. All people are imperfect, each in their own unique way. Some have difficulty getting to appointments on time, some have a hard time following instructions, some are afraid of change. When I focused less on what they should do and more on what they could do, I was able to be more gracious and forgiving, and people responded.
- I learned to focus on the unique privilege it is to serve patients. Patients are not an interruption or an intrusion, they are people with needs and fears, people who need my help. For some reason God in His grace has allowed me to be in a position to actually help people every day. When I began to view each visit as an opportunity to be the “hands of God”, to touch others on His behalf, my attitude became much more patient focused.
These are not the only changes, but they are among the most significant. As God changed my heart and my attitude toward my patients, their hearts and attitudes toward me changed as well. For over 5 years now I have consistently received some of the highest patient satisfaction scores in my medical group. Last year I was even asked to lead a discussion with other struggling physicians in the hope that I might help them do better in their practices. What a turnaround!
Just a reminder to those who are jerks and to those who are dealing with jerks. There is hope!
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