8 Ways to build a successful student-doctor and patient relationship

After observing the fourth year students in clinic (white coats pressed and 20 minute exams including DFE), the first thought that comes to your mind is, “Wow, I want to be just like that when I grow up!” They look, speak and walk as an optometrist should; and it can be intimidating. Don’t forget, they were once first year students too, and had to learn the professionalism that to the rest of us seems effortless. Here are some tips and tricks I learned along the way that will help you succeed in your clinical experiences.

1. Smile: Most of us don’t realize how often or how little we smile. Patients notice it immediately. Be sure to greet your patient with a smile and a handshake. Happy doctors usually result in happy and comfortable patients. You won’t be able to please everyone, but a smile is a great start!

2. Eye contact (no pun intended): This is a crucial part of the doctor-patient relationship. When you make eye contact with your patient, it indicates that you are listening to them. Any chief complaint (regardless of how minor medically) is bothersome enough that the patient presents to the clinic. Eye contact while discussing this and case history indicates to the patient that you are focused and serious about what they are explaining to you. It helps to gain confidence and trust in the clinician which, in turn, leads to an increased chance of compliance with your treatment suggestions, if any.

3. Perfume/cologne: Although your choice of scent may be expensive and posh, it may also be offensive and strong. Be mindful of the type of perfume/cologne you spray on before you slip into your white coat. Some patients have hypersensitivity to strong smells which can cause them migraines. Also, you are in a medical setting, and the attention should be on the case, not a strong scent. There are instances (such as direct ophthalmoscopy) where you will be very close to your patient. Personal hygiene is of great importance, so pick something that is less overbearing if necessary.

4. Clothing: Business casual is best for women and men. Women, skirts should be at the knee or lower, never above. Shoes should be closed-toe and be cautious about the neckline on shirts! For men, button down shirts and ties with slacks are a great choice. We want our patients to treat us as professionals, so we must dress as professionals.

5. Handshake: A sign of acknowledgement and respect, a handshake upon greeting and departing from your patient is an excellent way to build rapport. Be mindful if your patient refuses, as it may be due to religious or cultural reasons.

6. Medical jargon: When explaining a diagnosis to a patient, using words such as “intraocular pressure” and “blepharochalasis” may not be the best idea. With the advent of the Internet, patients are more educated about medical conditions than ever before, but that doesn’t mean they know everything. Medical jargon is our language, not theirs. Use words that are easier to understand and add more detail when asked. Be able to explain diagnoses in a clear and concise manner that is not condescending or abrupt. This skill takes time to develop and will come with experience. Try your best from day one and observe your attending clinician’s methods.

7. Skip the tuna salad: Not only should you skip the tuna salad, skip the onions on your sandwich, the garlic on your pizza, and any other strong, pungent food for lunch. These foods tend to linger for a few hours after you have eaten them, and as was discussed earlier, we get close to our patients. If you can’t avoid it, have some extra breath mints in your clinic bag.

8. Empathy vs. Sympathy: There have been countless resources published for doctors explaining the difference. One must be able to listen well to understand when to use empathy or sympathy when in conversation with your patient. Empathy is the perspective of understanding what someone is feeling because you have had a similar experience for yourself. Sympathy is acknowledging a hardship and providing comfort, not having experienced the hardship personally. Empathy is a mutual experience, while sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding. Both are useful in building rapport with a patient. A patient may not remember to scrub their lids 3 times a day, but they will remember how you made them feel.

These details can make all the difference! Good luck and much success to you all in clinic rotations, at school and beyond!

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