HealthMarch 17, 2020

How physician body language can affect patient interactions

By: Brian Wu, MD, PhD

Effective communication is one of the most important skills you can develop during the course of your medical training. Building rapport with your patients is the starting point for developing mutual respect and trust, which is vital to the therapeutic relationship.

Yet good communication is trickier than it sounds, especially as verbal communication is only part of the overall message you're conveying. Body language can have a strong impact on the quality of your patient interactions as well.

How physician body language impacts the patient experience

Physician body language shapes patient interactions in a variety of ways. A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management notes that communication between doctors and patients is a complex mix of spoken words, gestures, expressions, postures and eye contact. Nonverbal cues can affect rapport, patient trust, the willingness of the patient to adhere to the plan of care and the patient's satisfaction with the doctor-patient relationship.

The study analyzed and scored doctors' communication with white versus black patients. While the doctors' verbal scores were similar for both groups, they scored significantly lower in nonverbal communication with their black patients, as measured by factors like time spent interacting with the patient, body posture, proximity to the patient and patient touch. These results highlight the ways in which doctors unwittingly communicate with patients and the importance of non-verbal expression in the care process.

Body language not only indicates how doctors feel — consciously or not — about their patients, but can also impact how patients perceive their physicians. An article in Anesthesiology found that actor anesthesiologists who presented with "confident, high-power poses" were perceived as more intelligent and better at their jobs. Patients preferred these anesthesiologists to those with low-power postures.

4 Tips for improving body language

For some, open and communicative body language comes naturally, but these are skills that any doctor can learn. Here are four quick tips for improving your body language when interacting with your patients.

1. Take a seat

One of the most common complaints patients have about doctors is that they seem rushed. Much of the time, your day is going to be packed and fast-paced. However, the simple act of sitting down rather than standing to talk to your patient can make them feel more at ease and more willing to engage with you in a meaningful way. Given how hectic most physicians' schedules are, it's worth a deliberate reminder to use your body language to show you're slowing down for your patients and giving them your undivided attention.

2. Be conscious of your arms and shoulders

Be aware of the positions of your arms and shoulders, as these body parts are particularly communicative, whether you intend them to be or not. Avoid a posture where your arms are crossed or your shoulders are raised. This can communicate to the patient that you're unsure of yourself or that you don't care about what they're saying. It can also be perceived as threatening or domineering.

3. Engage face to face

The way you position yourself in relation to your patient can also help convey that you're listening and concerned about what the patient has to say. Position yourself so that you can speak with the patient face to face and make eye contact. After all, you don't want to seem like you're more interested in your notes than you are in your patient's well-being. If you're using a computer to take notes, make sure you still face the patient as you type and establish eye contact whenever possible.

4. Use touch carefully

As one patient wrote in the New York Times, medical touch can be positive or negative, depending on the situation. During both physical examinations and conversational interactions, carefully calibrated physical contact can provide comfort and demonstrate compassion, especially as healthcare becomes more digital and businesslike. Carelessness, of course, can have the opposite effect. Some patients may be particularly sensitive or averse to being touched by their doctor, so it's wise to get to know patients and their communication style before reaching out.

In short, while it may take a conscious effort at first, using positive body language can help strengthen your patient interactions. Once you fall into these habits, you may notice your patients are more open with you and more receptive to your advice.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD
Lippincott® Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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