How to Improve the Patient Experience in the Doctors Consulting Room

1. Privacy screens and soundproofing

One of the quickest ways to make a patient feel uncomfortable in a doctor’s consulting room is to provide them with inadequate privacy. Think about the last time you had a health concern you felt embarrassed about. It’s difficult enough sharing this with a general practitioner, let alone a stranger.

As HotDoc’s Clinical Director Magali De Castro shares, “Patients shouldn’t be able to hear everyone who is walking past in the hallway outside the doctor’s consultation room when the door is closed. If they can, it makes them feel anybody could be listening on”.

Magali went on to explain, “Aside from noise, there needs to be visual privacy. It is not enough just to have the main door as a blockade. Every consulting room should have a privacy screen as well, because if someone knocks and just opens the door it can be quite confronting”.

2. Involve patients in decision-making

There is a big difference between being told what to do and being given a choice. When a person is told what to do they tend to feel powerless and of no use. While, when a person is asked what to do, it tends to make them feel in control and valuable.

This is an important distinction when it comes to encouraging patients to embrace new things such as treatments and preventative health advice. When someone feels like they are choosing, they are far more likely to be motivated to take on new challenges and try new things. Whereas, when they don’t have choice, they are more likely to look upon the solutions negatively.

This said, in an article in The New York Times, it was found that:

Researchers interviewed more than 8,000 hospitalised patients at the University of Chicago. When it came to medical decisions, almost all the respondents wanted their doctors to offer choices and consider their opinions. But a majority of patients — two out of three — also preferred that their doctors make the final decisions regarding their medical care

So, while patients like to be involved in decisions, it doesn’t always mean they want to be left to make the final call. Simply asking a patient for their opinion can often be enough to make them feel empowered, and this alone can change their entire outlook on a treatment.

3. Listening and empathy

In a series of interviews HotDoc conducted with patients last year, it was found that across all demographics, the number one trait patients looked for in a doctor was someone who could listen and show empathy. Perhaps this isn’t a big surprise considering we all like to be heard and understood, but what may be surprising is the physical effects of empathy on treating patient illness.

In a randomised controlled study of 719 patients, it was found that empathy among clinicians resulted in a significant reduction in the severity and duration of a common cold – reducing recovery times from 7 days to 5.89

While this is perhaps the most difficult thing to change in a clinic, because to get empathy right means truly caring, it is worthwhile noting that simple things such as giving patients time to speak goes a long way. Especially considering one study found that, on average, doctors interrupt patients within 18 seconds.

4. Nurse led care

Considering time is a doctor’s greatest obstacle, and a patient’s greatest value, you may want to look at empowering your nurses to run specific services on their own. In interviews HotDoc conducted with patients last year, one woman in her mid-fifties, shared this feedback herself. “I wish I could just book in to see the nurse and not the doctor because I regularly get injections and it’s often difficult to get in and see the doctor. And also for my blood pressure checks. I’m not sure why the nurse can’t do that?”

While this is certainly not a suggestion to replace doctors with nurses, research conducted by RACGP does point to the benefits of nurse led care from the patient’s perspective. Perhaps there are things a nurse can do to alleviate the workload of doctors. For instance, could a nurse take a patient’s blood pressure prior to the patient seeing the doctor to reduce the strain on a doctor’s schedule?

Not only is this better for your practice, because it alleviates pressure on doctors, but it also benefits patients because appointments are more than likely to run on time and patients are less likely to feel rushed in and out of the consulting room. Plus, there is the added benefit of patients feeling they are getting the full support of the practice, engaging with multiple health practitioners, not just their doctor.

5. Bring Allied Health Professionals into your clinic

Another suggestion to improve the experience a patient has with your clinic is looking at bringing allied health professionals into your clinic. Magali De Castro explains, “If there are services you are referring patients to on a regular basis you may consider bringing them onsite. For instance, if you have a big need for mental health services, could one or two of your rooms have psychologists working from them, even just for a couple of days a week?”.

The benefit to patients in the consulting room is that they feel more comfortable because they are using a familiar space. The added benefit is that it also makes getting a referral quick and easy for a patient.

6. Ensure patients understand instructions

Often when a patient is taking on a lot of new information, or not feeling 100%, they tend to agree to things they don’t fully understand. The fact is most patients have difficulty understanding information given to them by health care providers.

According to TeachBack, patients remember and understand less than half of what their health practitioner explains to them. Most also say the healthcare environment makes it hard for them to tell clinicians they don’t understand

Add to this the shame felt by those patients with limited literacy and we can begin to get a gauge on just how much key information is lost in communication between a clinician and a patient.

To prevent this from happening, and to ensure patients are getting all the information they need, TeachBack suggests clinicians do 3 things:

  • Use plain language. For instance, instead of saying hypertension, say high blood pressure. Instead of modify, say change. Instead of fracture, say broken bone. Instead of oral, say by mouth etc.  
  • Focus on the most important messages. Providing too much information makes it hard for the patient to remember what is most important. Thus the most vital information should be prioritised. For instance, in an example used by TeachBack, a 78-year old woman is discharged from the hospital with heart failure, a stress fracture and hypertension. There could be a lot of advice the clinician could give her to ensure a successful transition home, such as (1) advice on a low-salt, high-calcium diet, (2) physical therapy for the stress fracture, (3) reasons to call the clinician, (4) flu shot information. However, it isn’t likely the patient will remember all of this info. In this case the priority of information would be (3) reasons to call the clinician, because this is the most important information.
  • Always check for understanding by asking a patient to repeat things back to you in their own words. For instance, saying to the patient, “I want to be sure I explained everything clearly. Can you explain it back to me so I can be sure I did?”

7. Use visual aids

When you consider that much of our brain’s sensory cortex is devoted to vision, not word processing, it isn’t a stretch to see that using visual aids when teaching new information, more often than not, decreases learning time, improves comprehension, enhances retrieval and increases retention.

Google images, books, posters, models and live demonstrations are all ways a doctor can integrate visuals into their explanations. The trouble with most specialists is they forget what it is like to be a beginner again. They struggle to understand what it feels like to not have all the knowledge they have acquired over a decade at medical school and years and years in clinic.

8. Integrate health apps

Another thing that can be hard for patients is feeling isolated when they leave the consulting room. This is one reason why some patients book with doctors over and over again, because they feel alone dealing with their condition.

To aid patients in these isolated periods, you may want to consider doing some research on helpful apps that patients can use to support them between visits. Here are a 3 free examples:

  • Pacer (iTunes, Android) is a handy tool for setting goals and monitoring the number of steps an individual walks in a day.
  • MyFitness Pal (iTunes, Android) offers pretty much everything a patient needs to track their weight loss journey, including daily food intake, calories, exercises and steps. The app even gives the patient the ability to quickly and easily enter what they eat and count the calories for that food, as well as logging a users burned calories for the day.
  • SmilingMind (iTunes, Android) is a mindfulness meditation app, developed by psychologists and educators, to help bring balance and peace to people’s lives. The app has already reached more than 2 million people worldwide.


All this said, tips aside, the number one takeaway is that changing the healthcare system begins in the consulting room. Despite the advent of digital technology and the progression of healthcare, findings show the patient-doctor relationship remains at the forefront of the patient experience, overshadowing all other strategies of good practice management.

Through simply taking the time to stop and breathe between appointments, and to step inside the shoes of a patient, clinicians can have an enormous impact on how patients feel and how they perceive their experience within a practice. For most patients this is enough. They just want to be heard and feel cared for.

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