Building Rapport with Patients
“I was afraid of the unknown, what to expect, and of course, whatever potential pain I was about to experience. After a thoughtful conversation with the nurse in charge, I felt I had someone who understood me and was ‘on my side.’”
—Mrs. M., Hartford Hospital, Hartford, CT
It’s not always natural and easy building rapport with patients. There’s fear, anxiety, confusion, and sometimes mistrust that makes finding communication inroads challenging. Putting a patient at ease takes some patience and the skills necessary takes practice.
A strategy to help build rapport with patients that is adopted by some healthcare workers involves using the word “H.E.L.P.E.R.” The mnemonic device, H.E.L.P.E.R., outlines the essentials of how to build a trusting relationship with a patient. First, sit in a place where you will have privacy with your patient, if possible (if an office or private space is not available, make any area as private as possible). Be sure to be eye-level with the individual at the start of any discussion.
H – Honesty and Trust: Sharing some personal tidbits helps to establish trust between healthcare workers and patients. Let the patient know your conversation is confidential, and that you can be trusted. Give your honest review or assessment of the situation and allow the patient time to reflect and ask questions. Assure the individual that trust is critical and highly valued.
E – Eye Contact: Looking in the eyes of the patient, shows your caring side. It’s an investment in diving into the conversation. The simple act of eye-to-eye contact establishes an intuitive sense of trust in the healthcare worker and helps to build rapport.
L – Listen: Start by asking the patient questions, beginning with easy-to-answer questions, such as what they like to do for fun, questions about their family, or about a favorite movie or tv show they may have watched recently. When the patient speaks or has an inquiry of his/her own, be sure to understand what he/she is saying or asking and repeat back the words carefully. This shows you’re listening and trying to understand the patient. Most importantly of all, make sure the patient knows he/she is being heard.
P – Professionalism: How you speak to the patient and how you look are two important qualities in keeping professionalism at the forefront. While open communication is vital for creating good relationships with patients, maintaining a professional demeanor is just as important. With the patient, a professional attitude and look instills a sense of confidence in the healthcare worker. This includes the healthcare worker donning clean, crisp, and well-fitted scrubs.
E – Empathy: Your goal is to create a harmonious, empathic relationship with your patient. Some ways of doing this include showing actions more so than words. A gentle touch on the shoulder goes a long way. However, using words is still necessary. Words that show empathy acknowledge the patient’s pain. Examples include, “I’m so sorry this has happened,” “I wish there was something I could do,” or “Thank you for explaining.”
R – Respectfulness: Being respectful of a patient. Allowing a patient time to assess his/her situation and react in a way he/she feels comfortable, is a key ingredient in maintaining one’s dignity. Showing or telling an individual that they are valued and deserve respect goes a long way. Remember to always ask first before entering a patient’s room or space, graciously greet the patient, and acknowledge their questions, complaints, or fears. Offer meaningful replies and clear expectations. Use a calm, even tone when communicating and remember to avoid using jargon if possible.
How to Build Rapport With Patients - Practice and Active Participation
Having a good rapport with patients is a learned soft skill. With some practice, patience, and active participation, the development will be natural.
Individuals have “cues'' that you’ll need to understand, and that will help you in your conversational development. Cues such as crossed arms, sighs, fidgeting, eye-rolling, or other physical demonstrations are indicative of anxiety, stress, fear, anger, or impatience. This is the time to take a step back and give the patient time to explain what’s on his/her mind. Or this is the time to offer meaningful and constructive words of reassurance and encouragement. “I’ll look into that this afternoon,” or “Let me hunt down some answers for you and get back to you by the end of the week” are examples of setting up expectations and relieving anxiety.
“The doctor told me it was routine,” recounts patient Mrs. M. before an ECV (external cephalic version), “But going into the procedure, I was overcome with fear…’ is it going to hurt me or the baby? What happens immediately after? Suppose it harms the baby during the procedure?’ I was working myself up into a frenzy before the nurse sat down with me and told me exactly what to expect and the precautions they would take. The calmness of her words and look in the nurse’s eyes, I’ll never forget. I focused on that, and it helped greatly.” —Mrs. M., Hartford Hospital, Hartford, CT
A patient’s health includes his/her emotional state and having a good rapport with the patient is part of their prescription. Understanding how to build rapport with patients is a soft skill you can master and will make you an asset in your career.