5 Patient Communication Principles That Convey Courtesy and Respect

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patient communication that conveys courtesy and respectThe idea of treating our patients and their families with courtesy and respect is simple and straightforward. After all, parents begin teaching their children to be courteous from the time they can speak, because we understand how important these basics are to human interaction. But, it cannot be overstated how far simple courtesy and a show of true respect can go in creating meaningful connections and a positive patient experience. 

Every single thing we do as health care professionals has a direct impact on our patient’s satisfaction. As caregivers, we want our patients to have the best overall experience, but sometimes this can take a backseat to the basic logistics and processes of patient care. However, if positive interactions mean this much to the patient experience, then we need to be diligent to ensure that we are creating memorable and personal connections with our patients by making sure that they feel they are being treated as individuals. 

Standards of Behavior

When it comes to courtesy and respect, most standards of behavior are basics, but they are easily overlooked if you are not intentional about using them with every patient, every time.

Research shows that our non-verbal cues and tone of voice communicate much more to our patients than our actual words. In other words, our patients interpret courtesy and respect through much more than just the words we say. 

Eye Contact

To create an environment of courtesy when you’re in the room with a patient, try to make and keep eye contact with your patient. Avoid having conversations while you do other tasks around the room or make notes. Of course, it’s fine to talk while you are performing these tasks, but when you are answering a question or explaining something about their care, give your patient your full attention.

This absolutely carries over to the use of electronic devices. Make sure that as soon as you enter the exam room, your eyes are up and focused on the patient and his family, not looking at your notes or tablet. This small, initial interaction sets the tone for the entire visit. 

Personal Details

Always address your patients by name. By showing that you have taken the time to learn not only his name and how to pronounce it, you are showing a great deal of respect. 

Additionally, find out more about your patient than just a medical history. Ask your patients about their jobs, children, and hobbies. Knowing these small details will not only show interest in your patient, but it will give you useful information as well. My wife was recently told that she might need to stay home from work for six weeks after an upcoming surgery. This would have been useful information if she worked outside the home, but my wife stays home with our children. Had the practitioner asked about how she was employed, this would have probably led to a completely different conversation. This may seem like a small detail, but when it comes to the patient experience, the difference between a good and a great experience is made in the small details. Be intentional about patient communication.

When possible sit near your patient to talk. A 2012 study found that patients perceived a more positive interaction and a clearer understanding of medical details that were shared when their caregiver simply sat down during their interactions. Sitting while talking also leads patients to believe that their provider was present in the room longer. 

Body Language

It has been shown over and over that body language is very important. When you deal with patients, use what is known as an open body posture: face your patient and don’t cross your arms or turn away.

Also, make sure you are practicing active listening by nodding, agreeing, and using occasional repetitions and questions to show that you are actively engaged in the conversation. Assuring your patients through your body language that you are not only hearing, but listening to them, goes a long way in building confidence and trust.

Open Ended Questions

Even the types of questions you ask can lead to more positive interactions and feelings of courtesy and respect. Instead of asking yes or no questions, make sure you ask open-ended questions. Try saying, “Tell me how I can help,” instead of asking, “Do you need any help?” Request information from your patient by saying, “Tell me about the help you have at home,” instead of asking, “Do you have help at home?”  

It’s a small difference, but this will not only give you more complete answers from your patient, it also lets them know that you want to know more from them than just simple yes and no answers. In other words, it is another way to demonstrate courtesy and respect.


Remember, while it takes many consistent positive interactions to create a great patient experience, it can take only one bad interaction to create a bad experience.  This may not seem fair, but it’s true. You don’t want that to happen to a patient, and you definitely don’t want to be the person who causes that to happen. Courtesy and respect are essential, but we must be intentional and consistent in how we communicate that to our patients. 

Matt Dufilho is a Patient Experience Educator at Always Culture, which provides staff training and patient education tools for HCAHPS improvement.

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