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Positive interactions with patients can significantly impact the experience for both you as a doctor and your patients. It tends to make the situation less stressful and can facilitate more effective care. Yet, this positivity can occasionally be challenging to achieve.
One of the prevalent hurdles to good interactions is patients’ fear of doctors and hospitals. Anxious patients may be less communicative during appointments, making it more difficult to treat and diagnose them. They may also delay appointments, disrupting vital early intervention.
It is vital, then, to take steps to support patients with a fear of doctors or hospitals. Let’s look at a few good ways to approach this.
Patient anxieties can come from very real and challenging places for patients. The best way to approach the issue and make informed decisions about how best to help them navigate these fears is to understand the root of the issues.
Each patient will have unique factors that inform their fears of doctors or hospitals. It’s wise to discuss this with patients wherever possible. Some common causes of these phobias are:
Past Negative Experience: Some patients’ fears of medical professionals and environments are the direct result of previous experiences they’ve had. This may include misdiagnoses or particularly painful procedures. Some patients may also have had doctors who weren’t particularly empathetic, leading to stressful or emotionally difficult care.
Fear Of the Unknown: Particularly if seeking a diagnosis, patients may have fear related to an uncertainty of the outcome of their visit. Even if they’ve been diagnosed, they can still be unsure about what the results of their treatment will be or the impact on their lives.
Feel a Lack of Control: Most patients don’t have significant medical expertise. Therefore, going to a hospital or doctor means putting their well-being into the hands of another. This can be challenging when the professional is a stranger to them rather than a long-term family physician. This perceived loss of control over the situation, their body, and their future can be a scary prospect.
These are far from the only influencers of patients’ fears. However, by taking the time to get to know these and other causes, you can best collaborate with your patients on relevant solutions.
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Some of the causes of patients’ fears are related to trust issues. For instance, negative prior experiences — particularly related to doctors’ conduct — may mean patients are reluctant to put their full confidence in physicians. Alternatively, anxieties related to a loss of control may result in difficulty trusting others.
Even aside from directly addressing these types of specific root causes, taking the time to develop stronger trust bonds with your patients can help them feel more comfortable in the situation or environment. Some approaches you can take to build trust include:
Have Open and Transparent Communication: Patients may be less likely to trust if they feel as though they’re not getting all the important information. It’s vital to be as open as possible. When performing procedures or tests, explain the reasons for them and what happens during them. Utilize plain language when discussing potential diagnoses and treatments.
Be Reliable and Consistent: Inconsistency in care and behavior from physicians is unlikely to engender confidence and trust. You should, therefore, exhibit reliability in your actions. Keep on time for appointments and make every effort to follow up with patients on the agreed upon time scale.
Encourage Active Participation: You should aim to ensure your patients feel like active collaborators in their care. Seek their input and communicate that you’re providing them with information so they are empowered to make informed decisions. This tends to help boost the trust and comfort they feel during care.
It’s important to remember, though, that there are no quick and easy ways to build genuine trust with patients. Your efforts are more likely to have a cumulative effect over time. Start building trust from the earliest opportunity and keep communicating throughout your interactions.
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Empathy is one of the most important traits of any medical professional. It’s especially vital when interacting with patients who are experiencing fear of doctors and hospitals. By paying additional attention to empathetic communication, you can build a more genuine and positive rapport with these patients in ways that may ease their anxiety.
Additionally, the focus that acting with empathy requires can keep you alert to behavioral signs and changes related to their discomfort which then allows you to make more timely and relevant adjustments to your approach. Ways to communicate with empathy in these scenarios include:
Always Try to Actively Listen: Pay close attention to what patients are saying, even if it may seem irrelevant to the details of their care. Avoid interrupting them to get to the crux of the problem. Conversing with them about these elements can show you’re paying attention, which can reassure them that you genuinely care about what they’re saying.
Recognize Non-Verbal Cues: Among the most important elements of empathetic communication are those that aren’t necessarily spoken. Be mindful of your own body language in helping patients feel more comfortable, such as maintaining good eye contact and keeping your posture as open as possible. You should also be alert to patients’ body language as indicators of situations that are making them uncomfortable or afraid.
Utilize Reflective Responses: This means responding with expressions that show that you’ve understood their perspectives and emotions. For instance, you can reproduce their words or feelings by mirroring their tone or posture. It can also be as simple as accurately paraphrasing what they’ve said to you. This approach can help demonstrate a more empathetic connection and sense of validation that may put patients at greater ease.
While empathy is a powerful tool for helping patients with a fear of doctors and hospitals, it's important not to treat it just as a tactic. Effective relationships tend to be driven by a genuine sense of care for the other party.
Anxiety surrounding medical care can be mentally and physically distressing for patients. While they may experience some reticence in the days leading to appointments, their fear may come to a peak during the session itself.
You should understand some techniques that help patients overcome their symptoms of medical anxiety. They might present with rapid breathing, an elevated heart rate, or even something as simple as restlessness. Some of the actions to help alleviate their fear response can include:
Encourage Honest Conversation: Talking about their anxieties surrounding medical care may be a weight off their shoulders. Not to mention that it provides an opening for you to provide the most relevant reassurance. Nevertheless, it’s important to approach this gently and from a place of empathy.
Ask Inviting Questions: Particularly when the cause of anxiety is a fear of the unknown or lack of control, asking questions can help them feel more empowered in the situation. It also tends to be something external to focus on rather than the details of their internal fears and anxieties.
Have a Support System: If the patient has a friend or family member in the waiting room, invite the patient to bring them into the appointment. The presence of someone they already trust, alongside gestures such as having them hold the patient’s hand, may have a reassuring or calming influence.
Practice Breathing Techniques: Spending a few minutes talking to your patient through activities like cyclic sighing and focusing on breathing techniques can ease the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety.
Remember that reducing the symptoms of anxiety may not result in complete comfort and peace of mind for the remainder of the appointment, so periodically check and frequently reassure.
In some circumstances, the medical setting itself can be a trigger for experiences of fear for patients. Therefore, it’s worth considering what adjustments you can make in your environment that aid patients’ sense of calm and comfort. A few simple clinical setting adjustments you can make:
Display Welcoming Décor: While cleanliness is essential in medical facilities, this doesn’t mean your space has to be cold and clinical in appearance. Wherever appropriate, decorate in warm colors and hang artwork that invokes a sense of calm and reassurance. Using themes related to nature may be particularly comforting.
Reduce the Noise Levels: The sounds of activity caused by other patients, medical professionals, and equipment may be distracting or stressful for some patients. Therefore, you could utilize noise reduction strategies, such as using sound-absorbing materials on walls and ceilings or even creating specific quiet zones for patients.
There are good reasons that medical facilities have a clinical appearance. Largely because this type of layout and decor is conducive to clarity and cleanliness. However, making a few small adjustments in appropriate places can be a positive tool for some of your patients.
Experiencing fear or anxiety aren’t always influenced by internal feelings and perceptions. There are various external factors that may impact their emotions. Among the less explored of these is the well-being of their physicians.
When medical professionals are having difficulties, particularly in relation to stress, this can have an unintentional knock-on effect on patients. When left unchecked, workplace stress may affect your health and your professional performance. Some effective stress management techniques for high-pressure industries like medicine include:
Proper Work-Life Balance: Medicine is renowned for its long hours and difficult situations. It is important to ensure that these are balanced out with space for your personal life. This may include setting strict boundaries on how your work encroaches on your free time.
Prioritize Self Care: Yes, your patients are important, but so are you. Commit to taking time regularly to focus on your needs. Start a journal about your feelings or what you’re grateful for in your life. Ensure you’re taking regular breaks for food and hydration. Pursue your hobbies.
Exercise Regularly: Whether you take up a sport or spend time in the gym, exercise can be a great stress-relieving activity. You should also spend moments during your shift just taking a short walk, preferably in the fresh air.
Each person has a unique set of needs in relation to stress management. Be open to exploring different exercises and techniques. The better you can manage your stress, the more positively you’re likely to impact patients who live with a fear of doctors and hospitals.
Supporting patients who have a fear of doctors and hospitals is in the best interest of everyone involved. By getting to know the causes of fear and adopting behaviors and techniques to mitigate them, you can empower patients to experience better health outcomes.
Understanding fear is often deep-seated and should be addressed with long-term efforts. While you should make adjustments to improve patients’ comfort and reassure them, it can also be wise to refer more serious cases to specialist therapists. They can help patients tackle the root causes of anxiety so they can comfortably seek assistance for future health challenges in good time.