The ABCs of Beginning a Clinical Encounter


You’re running late and many things didn’t go right today. You knock on the door and enter the exam room with an apology. If you’re like me, you have a few papers and an iPad or a laptop in your hand. You sit down and open the patient’s chart in your device or perhaps on the big desktop, eyes not exactly locked on the patient.

Only after getting to where you need to be in the computer do you really look the patient in the eyes. Your body language has been one of hurry and distraction. Now you try to repair the damage of that, so you try to show you’re settling down now, at least for a few moments. You might sigh, move your arms in a gesture of relaxation and say something to get the history taking underway.

So far, you’re failing. I do that often, too.

Here’s what we all know we need to do, but often don’t; we should follow these ABCs:

A – Attention:

Clear your mind. It doesn’t matter what happened in the other room with the other patient, or on the phone with the insurance company or the smug specialist or ER doc who pointed out the diagnosis you missed. Open the door (I always knock first) and immediately look at the patient. Make eye contact and observe them. Pay attention to how they look, what they are signaling. The computer can wait; a few moments of focused attention will usually save you time in the end. After all, red or teary eyes, a leg cast, a big bruise or change in grooming can make the visit go in a direction you wouldn’t have expected from he listed chief complaint. How many times have we heard a patient comment about another doctor: He didn’t pay attention to me. Do we always do that ourselves if we’re rushed or preoccupied?

B – Behavior:

Behave like a doctor. I keep saying that. But the clinical encounter is like a dance, where either one of us can lead, and we lead a little too often. Behave in a way that signals respect, interest and both confidence and humility. Behave like someone who serves, guides and helps the patient heal. Behave in a way that behooves a doctor. You have paid attention to the patient. What did you see? What does he or she need, or need you to be like, in this moment?

C – Connection:

The goal of contemplating how a good clinical encounter should begin is to establish connection. Learning about someone, counseling someone, treating someone, comforting someone all require having a connection with that person. They tell you that strangers you meet like you better if you invite them to talk about themselves. Making connections with patients requires showing genuine interest, inviting disclosure and reciprocating just enough to show that you are a real person, but not so much that you seem too fallible or self absorbed. It is better to talk about your interests than about yourself. Sharing about pets, children and hobbies that don’t portray you as uppety is safest.

In the fast paced, high pressure day to day work we do, I sometimes catch myself not engaging quite enough with my patients. Even after forty years of doing this, I need to remind myself to start every patient encounter off in a way that sets the stage for making clinical and interpersonal progress. My demeanor builds relationship equity over time so that if I sometimes don’t live up to my ambition and miss one of my ABCs, my patients are a little more likely to overlook it.

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

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