Communicating with Patients: What are you really saying?

Communication is not limited to the words we say. Much of what we communicate also comes across through our tone of voice and our body language. It is important to remember this when communicating with patients at the time of service. Any assumptions or judgments will be obvious to them through nonverbal actions, and can overpower the words you are actually saying.

Take this example:

A patient approaches the check-in window prior to her appointment. When she enters the office she is talking to someone on a brand new smart phone about her plans to go to dinner at the new gourmet restaurant in town after work. The front desk receptionist noticeably looks at the “No Cell Phones” sign taped to the window. The patient hangs up, approaches the window, and pulls her insurance cards out of a designer wallet. The receptionist checks her in and explains that the patient has a $50 co-pay for the visit, and also that she has an outstanding balance of $250 for prior services.

The patient quickly explains why she has not yet paid her balance, (she “just doesn’t have it right now”) and that she is also not prepared to pay her co-pay. Per her training, the receptionist explains, “I understand, and we work with patients in your position all the time. Before your visit today, let’s take a few minutes to work out a payment plan that fits your budget as well as our financial guidelines.”

Best days of the week to contact a patient by phone
The words the receptionist used to approach setting up a payment plan were exactly what she learned in her training. She routinely starts successful conversations with patients about payment arrangements in the same way. However, this time the patient was unwilling to work with her. That is because the words themselves only account for about 7% of the message she conveyed to the patient. Her tone of voice and body language were saying something entirely different.


Best days of the week to contact a patient by phone
When the receptionist said she works with people “in your situation,” she was thinking to herself that this patient’s situation was that she simply didn’t want to pay her bill. Her new cell phone, fancy dinner plans and designer wallet all indicated to her that the patient was either being untruthful about not having the money, or that she would rather spend her money on things the receptionist certainly couldn’t afford rather than her medical bills. That perception was clear to the patient.


Best days of the week to contact a patient by phone
When the patient walked in she was greeted with an impatient reminder that the practice had a no cell phone policy. When she explained her situation and that she couldn’t afford the co-pay for her visit, but made a promise to pay, she could see the receptionist staring at her handbag (a gift from her sister), her cell phone (paid for by her company), and knew she had overheard her dinner plans (a special treat for her wedding anniversary), and could tell that she didn’t believe her.


Best days of the week to contact a patient by phone
When speaking to a patient over the phone, more than half of your physiology is missing. Because the patient cannot see your facial expressions or body language, they rely much more heavily on voice tonality. What you say becomes a little more important in the absence of visual communication cues, but tone of voice still counts for 84% of the message you convey. When speaking to a patient on the phone, try to remain upbeat. Believe it or not, they can hear a smile over the phone!


In order to effectively communicate with patients, particularly when discussing money, it is important to set aside judgments and assumptions. What you are thinking and feeling speaks much louder than the words you are saying, so if you appear to really want to help the person they will believe that to be true. The opposite is also true, as in this example.

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These statistics are from John Maxwell’s book, “Everyone Communicates, But Few Connect.”

Written by Ali Bechtel, Public Relations Coordinator

This information is not to be construed as legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case. Although we attempt to provide up-to-date information, laws and regulations often change. We make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy or completeness of this document. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.

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