How healthcare professionals can encourage patients to speak up

by Perry Dinardo

The Gold Foundation asked people to respond to a brief survey answering the question: “How could a healthcare professional encourage you to speak up about your needs?” Nearly 65 respondents answered the survey, sharing their insight about what sometimes prevents them from speaking up during appointments with their healthcare providers, and what they wished their healthcare providers would do differently.

The patient responses are perhaps best summarized in a simple word cloud:


Click to enlarge

Based on this survey, if patients could give their healthcare providers some advice about how to better address common patient frustrations, it might look something like this:

  • Ask more questions. Requests for more detailed and direct questions, “probing” questions, or more open-ended questions appeared in nearly every single one of the survey responses.  Patients suggested that by asking thoughtful questions, providers demonstrated their focus and genuine care for the patient’s wellbeing. One patient suggested that providers might ask specifically about social determinants of health, such as job stress, which can contribute to a decline in overall wellbeing.
  • Listen to the patient’s answers without interrupting, and ask more follow-up questions when the answers are vague. Patients asked providers to suspend judgment when patients divulge personal information in response to questions. Survey responses also reflected a desire for providers to listen actively and perhaps even reflect what the patient is saying. For example, “It sounds like you’re taking on a lot at work right now. Some people might find that overwhelming. How are you feeling about it?”
  • Validate the patient’s concerns. One patient wrote, “We know about ourselves and have insight that can promote improved outcomes.” Present the pros and cons of treatment alternatives, but pay attention to the patient’s feelings and preferences.
  • Slow down. One patient pleaded, “Don’t seem like you have a foot out the door while seeing me!” Patients wrote that they would be more likely to speak up if the provider allowed enough time in the appointment for them to relax and share their true concerns.   While patients understand that their providers are extremely busy, our survey respondents noted that taking just a little more time in an appointment went a long way towards promoting a friendlier, less business-like environment.
  • Make eye contact. More than one patient begged providers to simply, “Look at me!”
  • Think about ways to help patients ask questions that they may not feel comfortable articulating during the appointment. One respondent suggested that healthcare providers send a letter in advance of each appointment, to encourage the patient to reflect in advance about any health concerns he or she might have. The patient suggested this advance communication would be helpful in organizing his or her thoughts ahead of time, in order to come prepared with effective questions. Another survey respondent suggested providing patients with email access, an online portal, or another way t0 ask questions and receive responses electronically.  With this type of system, patients could find answers to simple questions without having to wait for an appointment, or ask follow-up questions  after their appointment has ended.

What do you wish your own healthcare provider would do differently? How do you encourage your patients to speak up about their healthcare needs?

Perry-Dinardo-400x419Perry Dinardo is a 2014 graduate of Duke University, an employee at Children’s Hospital Boston and a Research Intern at the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Research Institute.  She plans to attend medical school in the future and is excited to contribute to the Gold Foundation’s work.