How a Doctor’s Body Language Can Ease Communication with Patients with Disability

Aug 05, 2016
Tagged with: How a Doctor's Body Language Can Ease Communication with Patients with Disability

Academy award-nominated film producer Peter Guber once said, “Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking.” Meanwhile, according to Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, approximately 55 percent—more than half—of communication is nonverbal. This is true in all areas of communication, particularly when communicating with patients. As soon as you walk through the door, you have begun a conversation without speaking a word, and that silent dialogue can have serious repercussions. Unconscious behaviors the physician may not even realize he is exhibiting can make patients uncomfortable and make communication more difficult.

Communicating with patients is already a tricky field, but when the patients have disabilities, it further complicates the situation. Some patients with a disability may be particularly sensitive or self-conscious due to their disability, and others may communicate in a completely different way. Fortunately, it is possible to actively change your body language and retrain yourself so that you can communicate clearly with your patients and provide better care. Below, we will discuss a few specific tips to keep in mind when communicating to patients with disabilities.

Establish a Rapport

According to Medline Plus, a health information resource from the US Library of Medicine, one of the first steps in communicating properly with a patient is learning how that patient communicates. Particularly when working with a patient with a developmental disability, you need to change your approach to let them know that you are there to help.

Everything from your stance to your tone of voice to how loud you speak can impact your patient’s perception of the interaction. Some patients with attention disorders may be easily distracted and require you to get their attention by speaking their name or gently touching them on the arm. Others may have a strong aversion to being touched. The key is to learn to speak your patient’s language, both verbally and physically.

Be Sensitive to comfort zones and avoid overly dominant stances

Where you stand when you communicate with a patient sets a tone for the conversation, whether intentional or not. Standing over someone who is sitting, for example, can give the impression that you are arrogant or dismissive of their feelings. Many physicians may not even realize that they are doing this. Because they are already standing when they enter the room, they feel no need to sit down.

Think about this from the patient’s perspective, though. You are, quite literally, “talking down” to them. This can be particularly problematic when speaking with a patient who uses a wheelchair, because it only serves to emphasize a feeling of powerlessness.

PatientPop, a medical practice growth platform, recommends that instead of standing over a patient in a wheelchair, you should physically put yourself on the same level as the patient. Sit in a chair at the same height so that you can look him or her in the eye.

Make Eye Contact, but Keep it Natural

Eye contact is crucial. If you avoid eye contact with a patient, it gives the impression that you are not fully engaging with them, only giving them partial attention. It can also imply that you are not being fully honest, which is exactly the opposite of the message a physician should send to a patient.

Sometimes, even for a seasoned physician, if a patient has an obvious physical disability, the natural instinct is to look anywhere except at the patient to avoid being offensive. This actually can do more to call negative attention to the patient’s disability, making it seem as if it is something to be ashamed of. Don’t avoid looking at your patient; look them in the eye.

Try to make eye contact with your patients, though you should still avoid staring, which can make them feel like you’re interrogating them. Eye contact should feel natural and comfortable. A good rule to follow is the 50/70 guideline. When you are the one speaking to the patient, look them in the eyes about 50 percent of the time. When you are listening, increase that to about 70 percent of the time.

Keep in mind that the rules of eye contact change when you are working with a patient on the autism spectrum. In these cases, it is much more important to respect a patient’s preference to avoid eye contact.


Author: Dennis Hung