Patient Safety, Physician-Patient Relationship

Establishing an Emotional Connection During COVID with Patients Despite Social Distancing

Editor’s note: Social distancing required during the current COVID pandemic has taken a toll on our social and mental health. Rei Lantion discusses the impact social distancing may have on us and what each of us can do about it.

By Rei Lantion, Freelance Writer, Editor & Social Media Strategist

Human beings are social beings. This is a fact. Even the most introverted crave human warmth every now and then. In times of fear, anxiety, and poor health, we are heavily dependent on relationships and the presence of other human beings. When we’re sick, we love it when our friends visit us. When we’re stressed from work, we round up our colleagues and head out for dinner and drinks.

That being said, practicing social distancing during a global health crisis is definitely not the most ideal situation. And here’s why:

The Effects of Loneliness on Health

Loneliness and isolation can be contributing factors to poor or deteriorating health. Studies show that people who are lonely exhibit weakened immune responses to pathogens. They also have higher levels of the cortisol hormone (also known as the stress hormone) and are more prone to depression and self-deprecating thoughts.

Quarantine can be tough physically, mentally, and emotionally. Now, more than ever, establishing a strong patient-physician connection is crucial for successful treatment and favorable outcomes. The lack of physical contact and the need for physical distance may make it harder to do so, but it is decidedly not impossible.

Practice & Express Genuine Empathy

A team of researchers from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia conducted an empirical study on the potential relationship between physician empathy and patient recovery. Their results, according to research professor Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, showed that physicians “with high empathy scores had better clinical outcomes than physicians with lower scores.”

In their evaluation of 20,961 diabetic patients and 242 physicians in Italy, the researchers confirmed that an empathic physician-patient relationship can largely contribute to successful, uncomplicated outcomes over the course of the patient’s treatment.

Simply put? Feelings are important. When you check in with your patients or whenever you interact with them, ask about them and really pay attention to what they’re saying. Try to understand their concerns or their emotions and respond appropriately. Sympathize with them and validate their feelings. When you can’t offer comfort physically, offer it vocally and visually.

Practice Small Acts of Positive Respect

Everyone deserves respect, regardless of the situation. Show your patients respect, 24/7, and they’ll respond in kind. Small acts of positive treatment and gentle words can make all the difference to someone restless from treatment or tired of fighting their illness.

For instance; apologize if they waited too long. This shows that you value their time. Don’t use technical medical jargon if you can. Quickly explain when you can’t, in a way that isn’t patronizing. This shows that you don’t see them as any less for not knowing what you know. Make eye contact in lieu of physical contact. This shows them that you really are listening to what they have to say.

When your patients feel disrespected, they may become defensive, stubborn, and harder to work with. On the other hand, they may become more affable, approachable, and forthcoming once they feel they’re being treated equally.

According to an article by Dominick L. Frosch, PhD, and Ming Tai-Seale, MPH, there are substantial benefits to treating a patient with respect. “Respect engenders trust,” they write, “and having a trusting relationship makes it far more likely that physician and patient can work together as partners.”

Be Kind

One of the best ways to earn your patient’s trust and respect is to practice kindness. Acts of random kindness, no matter how small, are always appreciated. And in the middle of a public health emergency, where people are scared, confused, and tense 80% of the time, a little kindness can feel like a breath of fresh air. Smile when you see them, give them a few words of reassurance, use a gentle or casual tone when speaking with them (rather than a clinical one)—you get the idea.

There are many, many ways to practice kindness without physical contact.

Offer Live Chat Options

This one may not be as easy to implement as the others, given that it needs some time to set up, but it’s definitely worth investing in. Online chat services are a great way to take care of patients in a time where distance and physical isolation is a must.

You don’t necessarily need to hire a web developer to have a live chat window added to your website. There are plenty of social media options that you can utilize to help your patients get in touch with you and your staff right away. Facebook Messenger, for instance, is a widely popular and decently customizable chat client for businesses. Other instant messaging platforms like Instagram or WhatsApp are easy to use and widely accessible.

With this, your patients won’t need to drive to your clinic every time they have a question or an emergency (and risk contact exposure in the process). All they need to do is visit your website or social media page.

Encourage Communication

A review of the literature regarding doctor-patient communication revealed that physicians were found to “discourage patients from voicing their concerns and expectations.” Such negativity from the person who should be helping them get better can disempower patients, consequently hindering them from achieving their health goals.

What’s more, if a physician seems aloof and difficult to approach, patients are discouraged from requesting more information or a thorough explanation of their condition. This causes a lapse in understanding that can further lead to a lack of consensus between physician and patient. This, in turn, may result in therapeutic failure.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that physicians reach out to patients vocally and encourage open communication in turn. According to a study titled “The Role of the Physician in the Emerging Health Care Environment,” communication is considered an essential component of the physician’s role.

Even just a thirty-second check-in is enough to ask them a simple question: “How’s your day been going?” “Do you need anything?” “Is everything okay in here?” Asking these seemingly mundane questions should be enough to address any qualms they may have had about sharing their concerns with you. In fact, you don’t even have to be in the same room to do this. You can always call them up or send them a message if you absolutely cannot drop by.


Rei Lantion is a graduate of Ateneo de Manila University and is an aspiring writer in the medical industry. Professionally, she has a great deal of experience in writing, editing, and marketing in naturopathic medical areas, working one-on-one with MDs and RNs. When she’s not writing she loves playing D&D with her dog Oreo.

 

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