Can Body Language Save Our Healthcare System? It Sure Looks Like It.

Healthcare professionals are experiencing unprecedented changes, causing stress for patients and staff.  Technology is severing the doctor-patient connection, leading to lawsuits and failing practices.  The cost of medical malpractice is well over $55 billion a year.  Is there a way to slow the tsunami of lawsuits?  Is there a way to “re-connect” doctor and patient?  Staff and patient?  Doctor and staff?

It’s looking more and more like body language is the antidote.  That’s due to a plethora of studies on malpractice cases proving the importance of the doctor’s bond with patients.  The key is knowing how to bond with patients.  In a nutshell, it’s just good old bedside manner.  

I grew up in a healthcare family.  My father is a retired physician and was Chief of Staff at Oak Ridge Hospital.  During his career he was a general practitioner, a surgeon, and in his late 30’s began a radiology practice.  So, I’ve seen and was taught, the doctor’s side of using bedside manner and body language.  That was the initial spark that fueled my interest in human behavior.

When I was 7 I wanted to be a doctor.  My family lived in a small town in Kentucky.  I watched in awe as my father calmed frightened mothers, quietened crying babies, and befriended patients.  He made them feel they were the only people in the world while talking with them.  He would soothe and comfort the dying and their families with what looked and sounded like effortless little talks.  He would tell me all about bedside manner, what worked, what didn’t, and why.

“Connecting is simple.  The person you’re talking to is probably scared to death.  Something is wrong, That’s why they’re seeing you.  As their doctor, your job is not to fix them.  Your job is to heal them.  You can’t treat people like sick cattle or a broken tractor.  You must respect them.”

In 1993 there was a study called the “instantaneous Impressions” study.  It proved those first few seconds a person sees you, a decision is made about how they will feel about you now, as well as long term.  My father figured that out long before there were any studies.  “Make sure you have a pleasant look and demeanor before you speak to a patient” he’d say.

Since then my study of human behavior has been a virtual blueprint on how to create and maintain doctor-patient relationships.  For example, does the person/patient believe what the doctor is saying?  Is the person/patient telling the truth?  Is the person/patient leaving out part of the information asked about?  Does the person/patient like or dislike the doctor?  Trust the doctor?  Trust the doctor’s judgment?  Is the person/patient there for reasons other than what they say they are?

What nonverbal cues can doctors use to let patients know they’re not just listening, but listening to and thinking about every-single-word?  Should the doctor touch the patient?  If so, where?  For how long?  How often?  What are those critical secrets and keys?

What can doctors can say to help create that bond?  The key here is to “match” the voice tone and speak in a similar manner as the patient.  Dr. Milton Erikson is the first to really “deep dive” into these studies.  

Everyone speaks and communicates in a unique way.  Yet each person’s style falls into one of three categories.  Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic.  If you’re a doctor, try this.  As you talk with the patient for a few minutes listen for these words and phrases:  Visual “I see what you’re saying” “It looks good to me”.  Words that relate to seeing.  Then there’s Audible “I hear you” “That sounds interesting”  Those words relate to hearing.  The third is Kinesthetic “That feels right to me” “It may be rough at first, but it will go smoothly later on…” “She’s not warm and fuzzy” Those are about feel and touch.

Once you decide what category the patient speaks from, you speak from that same category.  Match that category and speak with their tone of voice.  If they’re a bit scared and their voice tone is a little high, start up there with them.  “Match” them.  As you converse over the next 2 or 3 minutes, begin lowering your tone towards normal, and they will follow.  

The same goes if they sound down and depressive.  Start down there with them.  Match them.  Then slowly begin working them back up to normal.  You’ll be surprised how well this works.

There are so many things doctors can do to create and maintain that important, connective bond.  Next time we’ll break down some of the big ones. See Scott’s Keynote Speech details about how to fix this problem here: Body Language & Your Bedside Manner.