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What Your Body Language Tells Patients

Body Language in Healthcare

What Your Body Language Tells Patients

By Tiffany Aller

Body language in healthcare can tell as much of a story to your patients as the words that tumble from your mouth. Your everyday body language includes how you present yourself, which gestures you use and what your posture shows about you, as well as the expressions that flit across your face. Think carefully about the body language you use to enable better connections with your patients and to heighten the ability to express important messages to them. Don’t set aside the importance of spoken language to address your body language but rather incorporate the two so the sights and sounds you exhibit accurately represent your message.

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Eyes: The window to your soul and translator of your message

Your body language may be far more memorable to your patients than what you discuss. Two classic communications studies by Albert Mehrabian show that a large percentage of how people communicate comes down to nonverbal language. Although some study findings are routinely misrepresented — communication isn’t actually 93 percent nonverbal but rather composed of various components — a core conclusion stands true: People learn and recall based largely on what they see.

Caleb Backe, a Health & Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics, reminds us that “maintaining eye contact is one of the most fundamental ways that professionals remove barriers between themselves and a patient. By avoiding direct eye contact … you distance yourself from them and, in a sense, dehumanize their condition.” Matt Huey, a physical therapist with GO Sports Therapy in Coppell, Texas, instructs clinicians not to let screens distract them. Huey says, “I put the computer away and … face the patient, look them in the eye, and repeat and confirm what they say.”

Looking at your patient comfortably and consistently can help translate your messages and enable rapport that improves the overall outcome.

Lighten interactions with a smile

Backe goes on to describe the incredible impact of just one smile: “A professional who is too serious with their patients runs the risk of alienating them.” Your smile enables a patient to “feel that they’re in a safe space and are being helped.” That leads to lowered barriers and an openness to completing the therapy you’re working on together.

Smiles help patients bust through medical-related stress, Dr. Bob Levine shares. “Without … a smile from a healthcare practitioner, the automatic stress and anxiety that most patients have when their health is at risk will stay with them and can interfere with having the most effective interaction.”

Don’t force your smile, however, or take away from the severity of a potential message by smiling inappropriately. Rather, gauge both your patient and the message and coordinate your expressions accordingly.

Hand-holding to augment body language in healthcare

Dr. Marcelle Pachter, who helps patients both as a periodontist and a health educator, teaches the importance of how an individual holds their hands, based on what she herself learned from a psychiatrist. Certain movements, like twitching, indicate nervousness. While you may experience bouts of nerves at times, avoid burdening your patients with that emotion. She also cautions on touching patients outside of necessary demonstrations or positioning. Casual touches to arms, legs and backs can give the wrong impression to patients or verge on inappropriate contact.

Many people “speak” with their hands, outside of a sign language framework. Clinicians can practice exercises to tame overuse of their hands during conversation and instead engage in meaningful hand gestures. Individuals who subconsciously move their hands and arms constantly run the risk of distracting patients with their movements and inadvertently using gestures that negate or confuse their message.

Don’t be afraid of your own hands. Instead, embrace them and their use by refining your gestures and movements.

Mirroring appropriate body language

As a clinician, if you are an empath or naturally inclined to mirror the actions of others, you may experience divergent results, from increased trust to accidental appropriation of feelings or experiences. The Science of People poses an on-target example of mirroring outcomes: the annoying repeat utterances of a sibling versus the instant rapport because of perceived shared reactions or experiences. The publication suggests four steps to successful body language mirroring to successfully connect with your patients:

  • Build connections through other body language, like the eye contact, facial expressions and hand gestures as already discussed.
  • Mirror the speed and sounds of language first before moving on to physical mirroring.
  • Add in gesture or movement mirroring to complete the connection.

Another form of mirroring is matching a patient at their spatial level. Caleb Backe discusses that healthcare practitioners tend to walk into a room and then remain standing while the patient is seated at a lower level. “This can be an aggressive stance and intimidating to a patient,” he explains. In this instance, mirroring the seating level can ease stress and enable rapport. “Try to pull up a chair when possible and stay within eye level of your patients.” Therapists in certain fields can take this a step further by joining their patients on a mat for floor exercises and therapy, or by sitting on the next machine during that type of work.

Striving to eliminate the feeling of mismatched power through mirrored positioning can ensure your body language is sending appropriate messages to your clients.

Professionals can make a lifetime study of the nuances of body language in healthcare. As an allied health professional, you can instead embrace the goal of ensuring your patient’s comfort and well-being while fostering a sense of trust through simple tweaks to your current body language style. This can help you form longer-lasting relationships and increase patient retention. Changing up your healthcare career through varied travel assignments can also help by introducing you to new situations and enabling access to learning opportunities. Med Travelers can connect you to the types of jobs you most want to pursue nearly anywhere you desire to travel in the country.

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