Connecting Better with Patients Works Wonders

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Most doctors I know are reticent with their patients. Curiously the better they are at the work they do, the greater the reticence. They will walk over to the patient’s bed, look at the charts, confer with their colleagues, instruct the nurses, maybe inquire from the patient about how they are doing, mumble a few reassurances and then they are gone. The patient is often left pining for more information and hoping that their doctor would spend a little more time with them, maybe even share a light-hearted moment to lighten a grim day or just hold their hand for a while.

While medical outcomes do matter in the end, a doctor’s ability to connect with his patients is what matters during their stay in the hospital. I recall how Dr. Harsha Hegde a former colleague and a orthopaedics and spine surgeon would interact with his patients on his rounds. I have seen him checking on his patients, while chatting up with them on all manner of things. He would walk into a room, chat up with the patient about anything under the sun, engage with the patients as a friend, assure them that they will be out of the bed soon, crack a joke or two and in the same breath pass on the necessary instructions to the nurses or other colleagues. I even recall on many occasions, he would invite a patient out for dinner in the evening, particularly the day before the patient would be ready for discharge from the hospital!!!

Once we had a patient from the US, a school inspector if I recall correctly. He had come in pain and required a two level cervical disc replacement surgery. Dr. Hegde, duly operated on him and one evening as I was heading home, I saw him in the hospital lobby with the patient. Apparently, Dr. Hegde was taking him out for dinner !!! The patient too appeared to be in a state of shock, saying that he could hardly believe his luck. Three days back he had arrived from the US suffering from excruciating pain, and here he was heading out for a dinner with his doctor, who already seemed to have wrought a miracle.

While, what Dr. Hegde does is exceptional, most patients would be happy with a lot less. When the doctors start connecting with their patients, the patients also tend to be a lot more forgiving. A nagging unexplained pain, a sudden unexpected turn for the worse, a longer than planned stay in the hospital, and even a bigger bill are forgiven if the patient believes that their doctor was nice to them.

These patients than start spreading the good word around. They often exaggerate their experiences, the doctor turns into that wonderful knight in shining armour, who came riding on a mythical horse and saved them from the jaws of death. The doctor becomes a true saviour, capable of doing nothing wrong and the hospital too acquires a nice and warm halo. These patients are truly a healthcare marketer’s delight, they are the ones who do all the marketing and the doctor’s reputation and the number of patient’s queuing up outside their door goes up exponentially. The doctor loves it, the hospital loves it and of course the patients love it as well.

On the other hand, a very good surgeon with excellent outcomes, but with a grumpy, matter of fact style, would always be a lesser surgeon in the eyes of the patient. While, the patients would be happy with the excellent outcomes, they would always add a line saying that the doctor is rather ‘difficult’. And, here not surprisingly the patients would find many things wrong with the hospital as well. For some strange reason they will find that the nurses do not respond on time, that the food served is rather cold and bland, the pain relief offered to the patient is poor and the hospital overcharges for everything !

Life in a hospital is such. However, I do have a hunch, doctors, who connect with their patients better, also help in faster healing. The patients probably recover quicker and better, they return homes in a better and happier frame of mind and ultimately, that is really what truly matters.