Communicating with Fearful Patients: 6 Ways to Ease Patient Anxiety Through Thoughtful Interactions

communicating with fearful patients

It’s common for patients to feel fear, anxiety, and stress. How we interact with a fearful, uneasy patient can either positively or negatively impact their therapy experience—and even their outcomes.

Luckily, there are ways to hone in on our communication skills, emphasizing a patient-centered approach and strengthening our relationships with patients. When clinicians acquire the tools and knowledge to effectively and compassionately communicate, trustworthy relationships between patients and clinicians are more likely to be formed.

These six tips for improving patient interactions have made all the difference in how I provide compassionate patient care:

1. Get on the Patient’s Level

As clinicians, our physical positioning in a patient’s hospital room or in our office space is a form of nonverbal communication that can help your patient feel less anxious. Being at eye level with our patients communicates to them that we are approachable, reliable, and trustworthy.

Pull up a chair, raise the patient’s bed to eye level, or even kneel down next to the patient’s bedside. These simple tasks won’t take more than a few extra seconds and can help a patient feel more comfortable and less apprehensive.

2. Take Time to Listen

Sometimes the most effective way to communicate with patients is by not saying a word, but rather by taking the time to actively listen to a patient’s concerns, perspectives, and worries. Actively listening to a patient involves providing our full attention, withholding judgment, and sharing feedback in a supportive manner.

In addition, it’s likely we’ll learn new and valuable information that we otherwise would’ve missed out on, so it is truly a win-win for everyone involved.

3. Provide a Clear Summary of the Patient’s Situation and Plan

When communicating a patient’s current status and plan of care, it is essential to provide just enough details to paint a clear picture, but not so much information that it becomes overwhelming and stressful. By communicating a clear and concise summary in language that is easy for the patient to understand, we increase the likelihood that our patients will comprehend and recall the information later. Also, be sure to avoid medical jargon and common medical abbreviations, which may be second nature to us but are often unfamiliar to our patients.

Additionally, don’t forget the importance of multi-modal communication. In addition to providing a clear summary verbally, write down the key points using plain language, share a graph or figure if you feel it will help to provide clarity, or describe a complex concept using an analogy.

4. Empathize and Encourage

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person. For many of our patients who are experiencing feelings of anxiety and fear around a diagnosis or situation, their biggest wish is to feel seen, heard, and helped. Communicating sentiments of empathy and appropriate encouragement can give patients the validation they need during their time of stress.

By showing support and acknowledging a patient’s feelings and emotions, clinicians gain the ability to form strong, trustworthy relationships that set the stage for improved outcomes.

5. Circle Back to Important Points

Plenty of research on learning and memory has solidified the notion that repetition breeds recall. At the end of each interaction with a patient, be sure to reiterate main ideas that you want to ensure the patient remembers. Taking a little extra time to briefly review the most important points of an interaction with the patient—and confirm that they can repeat it back to you—can increase the odds that the patient will be able to recall the information later on, which is essential for carryover of recommendations.

Patient Education

6. Allow Time for Questions and Clarification

Always end a patient interaction with ample time for questions as needed. One of the main goals of effective healthcare communication is to ensure comprehension on the patient’s end. Leaving no question unanswered helps patients achieve a more thorough understanding of their plan of care and goals, which can help to ease some anxiety and fear of the unknown.

MedBridge’s Patient Education library answers patient questions and provides them with material to review later in case they need a refresher. Before the patient leaves your office (or you leave the patient’s hospital room), review the assigned resources together to confirm that the patient understands the information and your instructions as well as how to access the information later.

Navigating the care of a nervous, tense patient can be tricky, but implementing the strategies discussed above will help fortify a more trustworthy, reliable relationship. Effective and compassionate communication can transform a patient’s entire therapy experience and truly separates a good clinician from a great one.

By putting forth the effort to ensure a patient’s understanding and comfort, we as clinicians are more likely to achieve productive interactions that result in better outcomes.