A condescending remark from the doctor, a headshake from a nurse, a curt answer to a serious question  – the sting from any of these can have a huge impact on patient satisfaction. If you have been on the receiving end, i.e. if you have been sitting in a doctor’s office longer than you had initially planned without being attended to, you’re likely to remember and internalize it. And suddenly you forget all the times when the physician was on time, and the supporting staff was nice.

Chemistry plays a big role in these types of situations.

When a patient faces criticism, or when she feels neglected, marginalized or ridiculed, her bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, the hormone that closes down the thinking center of the brain and activates protection behaviors. As a result, she can become more reactive, sensitive, and judgmental. She can blow situations out of proportion, take it home, and shares the negative experience with family, friends, and co-workers. These effects can supposedly last up to 26 hours in the body, imprinting the interaction on her memories and amplifying its impact on future behavior. Cortisol, a hormone produced during this process in the adrenal glands, functions like a sustained-release tablet – the more she brings up the event, the longer the negative impact and consequence on her body.

Of course, the opposite is true when a patient has a positive experience in a physician’s office. The staff is courteous and informs her of any possible delays. The doctor apologizes for a slight delay and ensures that the patient feels understood, heard, and well taken care of during the visit. These conversations produce a chemical reaction too. But this time they spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates the patient’s ability to communicate and trust the doctor by activating networks in her prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, oxytocin breaks down quicker than cortisol and therefore its impact is less dramatic and shorter lived.

This “chemistry of conversations” is why it is so critical to train physicians and their staff to be more mindful about their verbal and nonverbal interactions.

Behaviors that increase cortisol levels in patients reduce what we call “conversational intelligence” or C-IQ – the patient’s ability to connect, trust, and follow a physician’s instructions. As a result, the possibility of misdiagnosis or patient non-compliance and patient complaints can go up dramatically.

On the other hand, behaviors that spark oxytocin, raise C-IQ. The patient feels secure to share their most embarrassing and intimate health concerns. They feel like they have a bond with their physician. They are more inspired to listen to and follow the treatment plan. They will leave the office hopeful that their physician is on their side.

Ensuring a successful patient experience doesn’t only require a physician that is skilled in clinical outcomes but a physician and a team who practice Conversational Intelligence. Good patient care is a combination of genuine communication rituals in combination with solid clinical skills. It will bring down the fear of misunderstanding, and it will raise the patient satisfaction score and quality of care.

If you want to increase the conversational intelligence of your medical staff, I invite you to contact me for an exploratory conversation.