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How to Improve Doctor-Patient Connection

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2022 Issue 168 More than skin deep
by Adrian Bonenberger

Christine Ko, MD, a dermatology and pathology professor, has written a book to help doctors communicate their empathy more effectively, and to improve their interactions with patients.

It’s happened countless times: You’re sitting in a doctor’s office, hoping for good news while fearing the worst, when a well-meaning but time-starved doctor bustles into the room and delivers difficult news abruptly before breezing out and handing you off to a nurse.

The majority of doctor-patient interactions play out better than that, but Christine J. Ko, MD, professor of dermatology and pathology, experienced it often enough both as the mother of a hearing-impaired child and as a physician to know that what’s colloquially called bedside manner can have a huge impact on a patient’s experience. That experience in turn can help guide and reinforce a doctor’s suggested course of treatment—or undermine it.

How to Improve Doctor-Patient Connection is more than a manual intended for health care workers looking to improve the quality of their relationships with patients; it’s also a how-to guide for busy professionals in any field for whom personal interaction is a key component of daily life, and a way to make effective interpersonal skills a habit in people to whom social interaction does not come easily. “I’m an introvert, and I am also shy, and I didn’t grow up learning the skills to naturally and easily connect with others,” said Ko.

Broken into 11 easily digested chapters, Ko’s book takes readers through relatable first-person experiences of hers with the health care system, then offers further anecdotes and practical applications for teaching or self-training. Each chapter is self-contained, not unlike a textbook designed to be part of a curriculum.

The narrative thread that pulls readers through the bookis a memoir of Ko’s own experiences as a patient and patient advocate for her children, with some recollections of her experiences as a physician. The two perspectives are both given ample consideration and space, though—there being more patients in the world than physicians—more readers will connect directly with Ko’s experiences as a patient than as a physician. How to Improve Doctor-Patient Connection was written primarily for doctors, but patients can also benefit because it is useful to know and think about what their providers may be experiencing.

“I initially wrote the book for patients and patient advocates. Because I don’t have an established platform in terms of general readers, I did edit the book for a primary audience of doctors. The publisher [Routledge] fully supported my inclusion of tips for patients, as they can absolutely influence their health care interactions for the better. I’ve had to do so myself on the patient side, and it works,” said Ko.

Ko has written a deeply felt and personal account of her growth as a parent, a health care provider, and a patient. In an era and world characterized by intense professionalization and giant multinational health care conglomerates, it’s good to know that there are physicians like Ko, thinking about ways to keep that connection between patients and doctors strong and looking to bridge the empathy gap that sometimes opens inside an examination room in spite of everyone’s best intentions.