“You changed my life,” tearfully uttered one of my patients with diabetes. I replied humbly, “Oh, thank you.” Meanwhile, I was thinking we only had four or five visits and she really had not lost as much weight as some of my other patients, but she was trying. I thought surely I have not changed her life in that short period of time. She persisted, “No really, you changed my life and I want you to know that.”
She came to me about five months ago; frustrated and angry that she had “tried everything” with no success at weight loss. I listened patiently to all of her concerns. She told me stories of how so many doctors did not believe her or pointed out that all of her problems were weight-related before asking her if she was trying to lose weight. She felt beaten down by busy healthcare professionals who she felt were not hearing her concerns.
So how did I change her life? Specifically, we discussed simple, small changes to her eating patterns, such as eating several small meals throughout the day, as well as starting to move more. While these don’t seem like major life changes, they will definitely pay off long term. I think the biggest thing I offered that gave her hope was an open mind, patience and listening.
In Psychology Today, this article entiteld “11 Ways That Active Listening Can Help Your Relationships” by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, describes three stages of active, empathic listening as sensing, processing and responding. It’s important to be sensitive to what our patients are saying, let them finish all of their thoughts, summarize what they say, and respond in a non-judgmental way. This really helps to build trust and rapport with patients so that they are primed for making healthy changes.
I found this to be true in my personal health care as well. When I think about my first encounters with doctors and specialists, I put them through a sort of “trust filter” trying to read if they make time to answer my questions or appear to care about my concerns. When I sense they are listening and really care, I know I am a much better patient. Periodically, it may be good to stop and evaluate how you are doing with truly listening to patients and what are your barriers? For many of us, it’s the systems we work in that may have us feeling rushed. Doing a personal evaluation and also discussing strategies with your administration to allow for a couple more minutes with patients to build rapport and listen may be just what you need to make a difference for a patient.