How to Better Connect with Patients


Editor’s note: “Everything We Say and Do” is an informational series developed by SHM’s Patient Experience Committee to provide readers with thoughtful and actionable communication tactics that have great potential to positively impact patients’ experience of care. Each article will focus on how the contributor applies one or more of the “key communication” tactics in practice to maintain provider accountability for “everything we say and do that affects our patients’ thoughts, feelings, and well-being.”

View a chart outlining key communication tactics

What I Say and Do

Michael Donlin, ACNP-BC, FHM

Michael Donlin, ACNP-BC, FHM

Before entering a patient’s room, I take a “mindful moment,” a brief mindfulness practice to boost empathy. This is a quick, simple, and effective way for me to rehab my empathy muscle.

Why I Do It

From empathy comes our desire to care about another human being, to connect with them, and to understand and be understood.

Many of the colleagues I talk to about patient experience echo the same sentiment: They feel powerless to change someone else’s experience, which is bundled with the immovable variables of their own perceptions and contexts.

While I believe there is truth to that, we can certainly change our experience, and that is what matters to patients. As my mentor and coach Anya Sophia Mann reminded me recently, “We are not responsible for the patient experience. We are responsible for our own experience, which we then bring to our patients. Your heart connection to your own empathic center is beautifully contagious and will spread to those around you throughout your day.”

How I Do It

We may think that empathy is an innate talent, but the literature supports that it is a skill like any other that can be taught, practiced, and deliberately and consciously turned up and down like the brightness on your smartphone.

A heartfelt patient experience starts with the feeling of connection to our own heart. But we can’t think our way into a feeling. If I let my head lead the way, I shield my heart from participating in true communication with the patient. We are both left without connection, without a sense of purpose, without fulfillment—empty and tired.

For the antidote, I choose to create an experience for my body to feel rather than an idea for my head to think about. Ironically, mindfulness starts not with the mind but with the body and, more precisely, with the breath.

Before entering the patient’s room, usually as I’m rubbing the hand sanitizer between my fingers, I take a deep breath that expands my belly instead of my chest, then I exhale, leaving plenty of time for the complete out breath. Next, I make the choice to be curious about the sensations in my body: “What have I carried with me from my interaction with the previous patient (or the nurse or the driver in front of me during my commute)? Does my jaw feel tight? Where do I feel stuck? Where exactly does that lump in my throat begin and end?”

The instruction here is just to notice without judgment. From that place of noticing, I have done a quick erasing of my emotional whiteboard to create space where I can respond rather than react to what is most important to my patient. I invite you to try these steps and notice what shifts happen for you and your patients. You won’t know it until you try it—and feel it—for yourself.

  1. Pause long enough to feel the ground supporting you under both feet.
  2. Take a deep, cleansing belly breath. Exhale fully without added effort.
  3. Notice, without judgment, the sensations in your body.
  4. Feel the space created by the melting and releasing of those feelings.
  5. Bring that feeling of space with you as you begin the conversation with the patient.

Michael Donlin, ACNP-BC, FHM, is an inpatient nurse practitioner for the Department of Medicine, VA Boston Healthcare System.

Recommended Reading

How Should Hospitalists Manage Elderly Patients with Dysphagia?
The Hospitalist
Updated Guideline for Acute Diarrheal Infection
The Hospitalist
Risk-Assessment Models Are Unreliable Predictors of Venous Thromboembolism
The Hospitalist
Acute HIV Causes Transient Neurologic Findings
The Hospitalist
Two-Minute Screen Effective for Post-Op Delirium
The Hospitalist
Compete and Solve Clinical Cases with Human Diagnosis Project
The Hospitalist
2016 State of Hospital Medicine Report Now Available
The Hospitalist
QUIZ: Treating Infants Hospitalized With Viral Bronchiolitis
The Hospitalist
Sanofi Gets $43 M U.S. Funding to Spur Zika Vaccine Development
The Hospitalist
Addressing Hospitalist Burnout with Mindfulness
The Hospitalist
   Comments ()