How to Improve Patient Interactions

April 24, 2019
Whitney J. Palmer

Good patient interaction can be tough to master, but it’s a vital skill for radiologists.

In today’s healthcare environment, there’s an ever-growing expectation that your contribution to patients’ clinical experiences will go beyond capturing and reading an image. Instead, it’s now largely understood you’ll play a more interactive role in their diagnostic journeys.

However, for many patients, coming to you for a diagnostic study can be unsettling. Therefore, some responsibility falls to you to alleviate their fears and provide them with a comfortable, informative interaction.

“A substantial amount of successful patient outcomes has to do with the psyche of how patients approach healthcare, how they feel during their healthcare encounters, and how they prepare themselves for the encounter,” says Ella Kazerooni, MD, interim radiology chair and associate chair for clinical affairs at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. “It matters just as much as what they experience during the encounter and afterwards.”

With increasing workflow needs and reporting requirements, creating a relaxed atmosphere for your patients can be difficult. But, according to industry experts, you can take steps to them feel more at ease.

Why improved interaction matters

In many ways, the quality of the images you collect requires patient cooperation. If a patient is overly anxious, says Peter Curatolo, MD, director of MRI services at Lahey Health Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts, they’re less able to comply with the requirements of various modalities. For example, fear and nervousness can prevent patients from remaining still and holding their breath for an MRI scan.

Related article: Radiologist, Meet Patient

Compromised images are the result. Not only can this lead to re-scans, he said, but it can also impede your ability to provide prompt diagnoses and the highest level of care you can. You could feel a negative impact on your workflow and your bottom line, as well. 

Strategies for improvement

There are several tactics you can implement to give your patients a better experience. Many times, says Andrew Rosenkrantz, MD, radiology professor and body imaging section chief at New York Univeristy Langone Health, it starts with your front staff.

“Be sure your staff know you’re providing a patient-first environment and that you offer training so they are oriented toward patient customer service,” he says. “They must be caring, kind, and considerate in their interactions.”

NYU also strives to give patients access to everyone involved with the care process. At the time an appointment is scheduled, patients receive a card with the names and job titles of everyone involved, including the receptionist, technologist, nurse, and radiologist. The card also provides instructions on how to offer feedback on the clinical experience. The department uses the feedback to make any necessary changes.

Kazerooni also suggests including a timeline for when study results will be available. Doing so manages patient expectations and helps prevent frustration.

Additionally, giving patients an avenue to express their feelings can also improve their experience and augment your interactions, she says. Michigan Medicine gives radiology patients a notebook in the waiting room to write in, expressing their emotions before appointments.

“Patients write whatever they’re feeling that day-their anxieties, their concerns, what brings them to the office,” Kazerooni says. “It’s a living book. Our patients can read what others are experiencing. It resonates with them that they’re not going through the experience alone.”

Taking steps at the administrative level is also beneficial, says Neena Kapoor, MD, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) radiologist. To augment patient experiences and improve interactions, the hospital created a patient experience oversight committee, comprised of departmental and facility leaders, to comb through feedback and identify what is most important to patients.

“Improvements to experiences are often as simple as providing warm blankets, informing patients about delays, and ensuring the patient has no further questions at the end of the appointment,” she says.

Technology can help

In addition to streamlining your workflow, technology can also augment your patient interactions.

If you have one, Kazerooni says, use the patient portal to communicate with patients.

“You should think of the patient portal as a much bigger opportunity to communicate with patients than simply providing study results,” she says. “It’s a way for you to start to become the first contact with patients. You can reach out and be more visible.”

Using the patient portal to send reminders and instructions regarding proper exam preparation can facilitate less stressful interactions, she says. Giving patients access to the schedule to select the most convenient appointment time could also help create more relaxed encounters.

Related article: 12 Ways to Improve Patient Portal Usage

Meeting patients where they live on social media can be beneficial, as well, Rosenkrantz says. Use the platforms as a way to answer patient questions about your practice and the services you offer. It’s more direct interaction, he says, and alleviates confusion.

Kapoor says electronic surveys are an effective tool to identify ways you can improve your patient interactions. BWH uses surveys to collect patient feedback about its strengths and weaknesses and color-codes the information by practice location onto a heat map.

“These tools provide quantitative and qualitative information that helps our department know where to target our efforts,” she says.

Face time matters

Although must of your time must be spent reading studies, Kazerooni says a growing number of patients would like face time with you. According to the results of her study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, 84% report wanting to meet with their radiologist.

To meet that need, she says, Massachusetts General Hospital created a radiology consultative clinic that offers patient education and provides opportunities for clinical discussions. Patient access can be limited, however, because some payers don’t cover the consultative cost.

Rosenkrantz seconds the benefits of setting aside time to talk with patients. Scheduling post-imaging conversations can help allay any patient concerns, he says.

But, you can maximize your face-to-face interactions with patients even when you can’t devote extra minutes to an appointment, Kapoor says. Sit-don’t stand-with the your patients to discuss studies and results. It makes the interaction feel more relaxed and longer.

Barriers

As with the addition of most new things in radiology, Kapoor says, time can be a significant barrier.

“Diagnostic imaging visits can be very short, and our staff work very hard to provide excellent patient care,” she says. “However, we should all try to remember that one can provide excellent clinical care while providing a positive patient experience with small changes. Remember that the patient comes first.”

Kazerooni echoes this concern, adding the industry’s change-resistant culture can also be an obstacle. It’s possible the push for creating better patient interactions can get lost among the other initiatives designed to improve your workflow, reduce your turn-around times, or safeguard your reimbursement. To side-step this problem and avoid provider indifference, she says, talk with your colleagues so they understand efforts to improve your patient encounters aren’t “flavor of the month” programs.

Related article: How to Be a More Efficient Radiology Department

Ultimately, Rosenkrantz says, focusing on the patient experience leads to the creation of better-quality imaging centers. Positive interactions are critical not only to providing quality care, but they also shape patient perceptions of radiology overall.

“It’s equally as important as anything that goes along with image quality, workflow, and turn-around time,” he says. “Patients matter to all of us. Improving our interactions is a component of the value that we provide as radiologists.”