I remember the first time I went to the store in a mask. It was probably the beginning of April when the CDC had just changed their advice on masks. My husband and I felt a little self-conscious but decided to be good citizens and soldier through—even if we were the only ones in the store with masks on. We were pleasantly surprised when we found that quite a few of our fellow shoppers were doing the same thing. But, boy! It seemed surreal to see so many people wearing masks. And while we continue to wear masks to provide protection for the vulnerable, I have to say that I miss seeing the smiles on faces of those around me.
As I’ve thought about this issue, it has been a lesson to me on just how important our body language and facial expressions are. It is through facial expressions that we can really see a person’s emotions and gain an understanding of the context of a conversation. Studies have shown that facial expressions are far more important to communication than the actual words spoken. Think about it. If you say “You are such a jerk” but are smiling, people know that you are just kidding. Take away the smile and it completely changes the meaning of the sentence.
Unfortunately, in today’s day, mask wearing in our practices is a no-brainer. It is required for the safety and security of both staff members and patients. But this comes with challenges. One study found that patients perceived doctors who wore masks as less caring and empathetic and the lack of facial expressions contribute to feelings of danger, isolation, and paranoia. This can make patient relationships difficult or even strained.
Fortunately, we have a great weapon in this battle. Today’s patients are used to communicating digitally and research shows that there are ways to create true emotional connections via remote connections.
Technology helps create a unique connection with patients
A big part of connecting with patients is that in-person visit. Our mask wearing has made those connections a little more difficult. Add to that the fact that in this pandemic world, some patients have been hesitant to visit a practice in person. In fact, research shows that visits to the doctor have been down across all specialties. This is bad for both patients and practices. The relationships are getting frayed and loyalty is down.
This is where telehealth has made a big difference. Not only do telehealth visits improve safety and sanitation, but it gives practitioners a chance to connect with patients WITHOUT that mask. Here are some tips from Stanford Medicine on creating a strong emotional connection with patients during a remote care visit:
- Prepare with intention. Stand up and take a deep breath between visits. Perform a chart review, emphasizing key elements of the social history. Minimize distractions to focus on the person you are about to see.
- Listen intently and completely. Sit up, lean forward, stay in the video frame, and look directly at the camera (not the screen) to maintain eye contact. Nod and use facial expressions to communicate. Pause before responding to account for any lag time and prevent interrupting patients.
- Agree on what matters most. Ask about your patient’s priorities and expectations, and share your own goals for the visit. Use open-ended questions and use teach-back to assess understanding. Reassure your patient that you are there for them.
- Connect with the patient’s story. Invite your patient to comment on their visible personal items such as pets, photos, or furnishings. Ask individuals who are present to introduce themselves to learn about the patient’s social support. If appropriate, inquire about the patient’s home environment and safety.
- Explore emotional cues. Tues into patient emotions evident through body language and tone or volume of speech. Ask the patient how they are feeling about their health concerns and other stressors. Name and validate observed emotions.
In many cases, a telehealth visit as described above can be a far more connecting experience than one in the office, especially as mask LITERALLY mask our ability to communicate. Beyond using technology, there are a few things you can do in the office as well. Consider getting masks that have smiley faces on them. It sounds cheesy, but actually does make a big difference. Continue to smile (even through your mask) because it will show in your eyes and voice. Use the other parts of your body more—give big thumbs-ups, nod your head, or wave. The combination of technology and creativity in the office will help you build and strengthen bonds with patients during this trying time.
Be sure to check out this free guide that walks you through a lot of the myths that surround telehealth.