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Creating Meaningful Patient Connections

Jan 29, 2024

I still remember vividly the scenery when I first met Mrs. B in the office, back when she was 95 years old. Mrs. B was brought in by her nephew. She was petite, thin and was transported to the exam room in a wheelchair. She was wearing a colorful head scarf, oversized sunglasses, a few necklaces and several bracelets. She was wearing a silk blouse and bright red lipstick. She looked 20 years younger than her age.

“Hi Mrs. B, I’m Dr. Leung, nice to meet you. How are you doing today?” I asked.

Mrs. B replied, “I feel fine. If I felt any better, I’d be dangerous.”

I thought seriously about her comment. That would probably be true.

That remark became the staple of her visits. She was seeing me for a low-grade lymphoma. I asked Mrs. B what she would like to do, given the option of aggressive intervention and testing vs. observation. Mrs. B made it very clear from the beginning that she did not wish to undergo a bone marrow biopsy. She did not want to have any chemotherapy or aggressive treatment for her lymphoma. Over the course of the next few years, she was treated on and off with steroids for hemolytic anemia associated with her lymphoma. Her enlarged lymph nodes somehow decreased the size.

When Mrs. B turned 100 years old, she still came to the office the same way, with her sunglasses, stylish outfit and accessories. She would not go out of her house without putting her lipstick on. She never forgot that she would be dangerous if she were to feel any better. Over the years, I got to know Mrs. B, her nephew and her aides very well. We talked about fashion, about traveling, about many other things besides her diagnosis.

I called Mrs. B’s nephew when she passed away. She was like a grandmother to me. Her nephew thanked me for my care. He told me that one of her favorite things to do was her regular doctor visits with me.

As human beings, we are not designed to be alone. Meaningful connections with others make the life journey much more fulfilling. Meaningful connections benefit both the patients and the physicians. In order to do the best in connecting, physicians need the mental capacity and the emotional well-being to do so.

When physicians are constantly in a survival mode, the main focus is on how to get through the day without dying. With this mode of living, it is difficult to be present and be fully engaged with what patients are saying or expressing emotionally.

To get out of the survival mode, it is important for physicians to recognize what the main obstacle is to switch from surviving to thriving.

For me, it was the long hours I was working. Basically working 1.5 times or more of a full-tine job without volunteering to sign up to work in that capacity. Once I identified that was the main reason for me operating in the survival mode, I worked toward more efficiency and gaining back hours while staying in my job.

What a difference it made. With getting my charts done, leaving work around 5 pm, I gained back my sanity. I was no longer in the survival mode. I now get to let myself live and feel the emotions. I allow myself to care for me.

Creating meaningful connections with patients start with taking care of yourself, so that you have optimal physical health, emotional well-being to give others. You cannot give what you do not have.

Make the decision that you desire to have a meaningful connection with your patient and that you can do it. If you do not wish to create that connection, then this article is probably not very helpful to you.

Be yourself. Meaningful connections may mean differently to different people. As everyone has a different personality, it does not mean that you make the same degree of interaction or relationship with every patient. Focus on patient care. Focus on what they want and what they need, both medically and emotionally.

Talk like a human being. Even though medical terms are in English, they are foreign to most patients. Discuss with patients in a way that they understand. Make sure they know what their diagnosis is about, and why you are recommending certain treatments.

Listen to your patients. By listening, I include the nonverbal cues during your encounter. Give them time to express themselves. Take the time you need to establish the trust and the connection while being mindful of your schedule. It takes practice to know when it is a good timing to chime in without being felt as interrupting. That timing is also different for different people.

Once you understand the patient’s main concern, it is then easier to direct the discussion toward it. I also find that meaningful connections include small talks about their families, their pets, big events in life, etc.

Always smile. When you go into the exam room with a smile, it conveys to the patient that they are welcome there and you are open to cultivating a great relationship. Smiling also opens up your mental capacity to face the unknown, to prepare yourself to accept whatever the patient is going to share with you.

One of the biggest reasons for me to go into medicine is to have meaningful relationships with patients, so that they feel connected, they feel heard, and they feel loved. The benefits go both ways. The more I take great care of myself, the better equipped I am to relate to patients this way. Are you ready to have a deeper level of connection with your patients?

Are you ready to stop feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Are you ready to have more time to do what you want?


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