What’s in a smile?

At a recent conference, I spoke about communication in the healthcare setting and suggested that the major premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, has a lot to tell us about how we interact with our patients. Gladwell provides data showing that we all make snap decisions and that we usually decide whether we like someone within the first few seconds of meeting them. For this reason, it’s important to set ourselves up to make the best first impression on our patients – even before we walk in the exam room. One thing we can do to create a positive impression and establish rapport is to smile at our patients when we greet them. Patients like seeing providers who look like they enjoy what they do, and who look happy to see them. Our pleasant demeanor feels better to our patient than when we walk into a room with a frown on our face because we’re still thinking about something unfortunate that just happened or worrying about what might happen later in our day. It’s a simple idea – but often, the most powerful concepts are the simplest.

The next day, in a cab from the airport, I found out how right this concept is.

The cab driver was a delightful 33y/o man who was married at age 19 and was working hard to support his wife and three young children. He was mostly concerned with the basic priorities of his life and shared some of his concerns about his marriage and job security. He brightened up when he talked about taking his kids to the park in the summer and seemed sad that they had returned to school, since his nighttime work hours kept him from spending much time with them since school had started. Near the end of the ride he asked what I did for work and I told him I was a physician. That put a big smile on his face as he exclaimed, “I like doctors who smile the way you do. You know, it makes you feel good when your doctor smiles.”

Our days at work are usually full and often there are many things we are worried about. But by bringing ourselves into the current moment so we can welcome each patient with a smile, we make a powerful statement. The simple act of smiling often creates the connection and begins to develop the rapport we need for our patient to trust us and partner with us. And that will make both of us feel good.

About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
This entry was posted in building relationship with patients, effective communication in healthcare, first impressions, mindfulness, physician coach, physician coaching, physician communication, physician fulfillment and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What’s in a smile?

  1. Linda Antonucci says:

    Dr. Fronek,

    Thank you for another inspirational story. It was a pleasure meeting you at Newark airport. I hope you had a wonderful time visiting with your son in NYC.

    Regards, Linda Antonucci

    Linda Antonucci, RPhS, RVT, RDCS Cardiovascular Consulting Mobile: 201 410-3054 email: laveins@gmail.com

    On Tue, Sep 17, 2013 at 11:52 AM, Helane Fronek, MD Coaching and Consulting

    • Dear Linda,
      It was great seeing you as well! Doesn’t it seem that inspirational stories are all around us? We just need to be alert to them and find the lessons and great ideas hidden in them to help us shape a life that’s most meaningful. Over the weekend I attended a training for EFT, the “tapping technique” that has been found to help millions of people with anxiety, changing underlying negative beliefs, etc. At the beginning of the workshop, one of the participants announced to everyone at the workshop that she had written 86 books on EFT and I wondered why she was attending a beginning level training event. As she attempted to undermine the training and insert her own version of the technique, the skillful workshop presenter wasted no time in directly and professionally confronting her. I’m sure it was difficult, but the presenter remained focused on her goal – to present EFT to all the participants who paid for the workshop and who were attending in good faith in order to learn the technique. It made me wonder how many times I have failed to honor the commitments I’ve made just to avoid embarrassment or uncomfortable conversations. Keeping our commitments to others and to ourselves is a great motivator and inspiration – and the only thing that will help us have the life we want.

  2. Ole Peloso says:

    Dear dear Helene. You are so consistently right and correct about how we should react with our
    wonderful patients. We are so privileged to have their trust and willingness to allow us to evaluate
    and care for them. You stand alone in a niche doing more for patients and they physicians by
    educating us to be more thoughtful, understanding and caring.
    Many thanks for all you do for us.
    Ole Peloso

    • Dear Ole,
      I’m so sorry that I missed you at the UIP meeting! I hope you enjoyed it and found the sessions useful. Thank you for your kind words. Clearly, there is more emphasis being put on our interactions with patients. We all feel the shift, as we now have patient satisfaction scores dominating many aspects of our practices. While many people feel oppressed by “yet another thing we now have to do,” what’s impressed me is how easy it is to make big improvements in our communication with simple changes. Like smiling – we all know how to do that and just need to make sure it is part of our initial greeting of each patient. Easy and very powerful.

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