The Art of Persuasion: Getting Patients to Follow their Treatment Plans

Patient noncompliance with physician directives is estimated to cost the U.S. health care system more than $100 billion annually — and much of it is linked to poor physician-patient communication. Physicians need to develop ways to improve their communication skills and achieve better patient compliance.

Listen actively

What can physicians do to increase patient willingness to follow treatment plans? Connecting with a patient emotionally is the first step to persuasion. Even further, the patient needs to see the physician listening and engaged in the conversation. Active listening is one tool in the arsenal — a way you may be able to understand the emotions behind the words. It includes eye contact, nodding, and responding by asking for more information.

In addition, physicians need to be authoritative and communicate decisively. Some words and phrases, such as “I think,” or “maybe,” can confuse patients. Words such as “critical” and “essential” are decisive and can add weight to your message. It may be helpful to prepare scripts for your most common presentations and attempt to eliminate vague or indecisive language. But of course, be careful not to sound too “canned.”

You also should be careful with medical jargon. Many patients are confused by it but won’t admit to it out of embarrassment or fear of appearing stupid. One study noted that the word “chronic,” which to a doctor usually means persistent or long-term, is thought of as “severe” by many patients. And that’s not even a case of jargon, but of nuances within medical terminology. It all goes back to active listening — does your patient understand what you’re saying or is he or she just pretending to understand?

Clarify the consequences

Don’t simply explain a proposed treatment plan. It’s important to describe what could happen if the patient doesn’t comply. For example, “I think you need an antibiotic to clear up this earache” could become “It’s important that we clear up this earache using an antibiotic so it doesn’t become a full-fledged sinus infection.”

It’s also the case that the way the patient first perceives you affects compliance. Research indicates that the impression you make in the first two seconds takes four minutes to change. If you enter the examining room and appear distracted and hurried, that’s how the patient will perceive his or her entire experience.

Don’t underpromise, overdeliver — or vice versa.There are rarely 100% guarantees in medicine. So words such as “always” and “never” can be tricky. There’s a fine line between being decisive and overpromising particular results.

Be ready for last-minute questions

You need to be aware of the doorknob moment, which occurs when you’re exiting the examining room and a patient says, “There is one more thing…” You can avoid this half-in, half-out question-and answer session by asking, before heading for the door, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

If you implement these approaches, you can help improve patient compliance. This in turn will lead to more successful patient outcomes.

© 2018