What women want: 6 ways to reach female patients

By Wendy Lewis / 01 Jul 2014

Statistics show that the majority of aesthetics patients are female, yet there are still far more male doctors treating them. Learning the nuances of how to connect and engage with women is essential, argues Wendy Lewis

Ploughing through the rigours of medical school, followed by years of clinical training prepares physicians with the diagnostic skills and techniques required to treat patients effectively. Regrettably, one thing the process is not programmed to tackle is how to actually deal with real patients. In fact, some physicians have limited insight into how they come across when talking with patients, and little opportunity for formal feedback. While most doctors really are invested in their patients and in making the right decisions for their circumstances, there are still some who lack the skills to show that they care.1
I can recall one of my earliest visits to London to interview plastic surgeons and patients for my first book, The Lowdown on Facelifts and Other Wrinkle Remedies. I met with one businesswoman who had received a facelift that she described as an excruciating experience. I asked if the doctor had given her pain medication – she said that he did but when she asked what it was, he responded, “My dear, just take this pretty pink pill and let me worry about that.”
Fast-forward to 2014, and I highly doubt that any woman in the UK would put up with that kind of arrogance from a doctor. So what has changed? Patients want to be treated with respect and care. They demand more than a cursory ten-minute consultation and an attitude of, “I know what’s best for you.” The age-old Doctor- God complex is outdated and, in aesthetics, patients will not put up with it when they have many choices of clinics and practitioners. We all know that men and women differ in their behavioral traits, and this fact should be at the forefront of every practitioner’s approach to dealing with patients, new and existing.
Here are six factors that are important to consider when looking to improve and enhance your interactions with female patients:

WOMEN WANT TO FEEL CONNECTED

Build a rapport with the patient from the initial encounter. When you first meet her, look her right in the eyes and extend your hand. “Hello, I’m Dr. Black. It’s nice to meet you...” It is vital to establish that personal connection as early as possible in the relationship, so the dialogue and the relationship will flow more freely going forward. Fostering good doctor-patient communications helps to instill trust, encourages patients to be honest and disclose more information, and aids in managing patient expectations and outcomes. Particularly in the field of medical aesthetics, where we are not treating diseases, being a “nice doctor” that female patients have rapport with goes a long way.

BE EMPATHETIC

Women need to feel empowered by their relationships with healthcare practitioners. A caring attitude will contribute to a female patient’s comfort in your clinic. A female patient isn’t looking for you to talk her into anything, or solve all of her problems: often she just wants you to listen and empathise, without being judgmental. Try to understand patients’ beliefs, fears, and social and cultural backgrounds. Don’t jump into an analytic, problem-solving mode right away.
If you’re not sure what the patient’s goals really are, ask her. You might say, “It sounds like you have some very reasonable questions. Tell me about your priorities, and I will make some suggestions.” Be sensitive to issues from the past as well as to your female patient’s frame of mind. Did she have a bad previous experience with a cosmetic treatment? Is her partner or family not supportive of her desire to have something done? Perhaps this is the first time she has ever considered an anti-ageing treatment and is feeling guilty for spending money on herself. Sensitivity among male doctors is typically judged by female standards, whereas assertiveness is often judged by male standards. Some doctors may become uncomfortable and stern if they feel a patient is trying to control them. This kind of behaviour can be what causes female patients to complain about doctors’ insensitivity.

COMMUNICATION IS A TWO-WAY PROCESS

Look at the doctor-patient connection as an invitation to keep on talking, listening, and eventually to make a decision as a team. Remember that you are on the same side; this is not an adversarial relationship. Arrive at a plan together so the patient doesn’t feel like she is being talked or persuaded into anything.
As men and women communicate with each other differently, it is only natural for men and women to interface with patients of the opposite sex in a different way. You may not even be aware you are doing it. A study conducted in 1970 by Dr. Ray Birdwhistell the founder of Kinesics (also known as body language) at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that 93% of human communication occurs non-verbally.2 For example, women are more prone to smiling during an interaction, whereas men tend to be more cautious about smiling, and think of it as more of an emotional (or feminine) expression. Alpha males are also known to point more than women do, which portrays a more dominant role. Opening your hands means that you are ready and willing to act; whereas closing your hands shows an unwillingness. Undoubtedly, doctor-patient communication is going to be affected by gender, even if it is subliminal. The world famous professor of linguistics, Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University in Washington D.C, explored the differences between men and women in her best selling book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.3 She wrote, “For women, as for girls, intimacy is the fabric of relationships, and talk is the thread from which it is woven. Little girls create and maintain friendships by exchanging secrets; similarly, women regard conversation as the cornerstone of friendship.”
This should give you some insight as to where female patients are coming from when connecting with an aesthetic doctor. What is important is not the individual topics that are discussed, but the sense of closeness that emerges when she shares her thoughts and impressions. Women want and need to believe that the doctor actually cares about them and that they have formed some sort of bond.

BODY LANGUAGE AND EYE CONTACT

It is important to pay attention to non-verbal cues as well as verbal cues. Non-verbal communication is a powerful thing.
Your body language speaks to the patient, and this is of course universal, not restricted to gender. Maintain eye contact as much as possible during interactions and stay attentive. Speaking in a professional yet friendly manner will be well received. Never seem distracted or glance at your assistant while the patient is talking.
This can make the patient feel that she is not being taken seriously, and sets the wrong tone. Never look at your watch or smartphone, take a call, or walk out of the room unless there is an emergency that requires your immediate attention. Some female patients, especially women in their 50s and over, may feel uncomfortable getting undressed in front of a man, even if he happens to be wearing a white coat and is called “doctor.” To make your female patient feel at ease, be respectful of a woman’s modesty and privacy. Bedside manner is of vital importance in medical aesthetics. During the course of daily practice, verbal and nonverbal communication styles vary, and aesthetic patients have been known to continue or discontinue treatment because of these differences. I would add that it is partially for this reason that aesthetic nurses have done so well in the UK. Due to their training and experience, nurses tend to have a more empathetic ear and their demeanor is less threatening, meaning female patients can relate to them easily.

AVOID A CONDESCENDING TONE

If a patient asks what a word means, be aware of the tone you use to further explain details – you don’t want to make the patient feel stupid. If you need to use a highly complex word or phrase, ask whether its meaning is clear. Your tone of voice should be calm and understanding. Every patient deserves to have all their questions answered – no matter how many and how detailed they are.

“For women, as for girls, intimacy is the fabric of relationships, and talk is the thread from which it is woven. Little girls create and maintain friendships by exchanging secrets; similarly, women regard conversation as the cornerstone of friendship.”

Not answering pertinent questions or making patients feel that they should not be asking you affects the informed consent process that is at the cornerstone of medical practice. For both ethical and legal reasons, patients must be given enough information to be fully informed before deciding to undergo a treatment. The way that the physician explains things can result in disconnect with the patient. Female patients may be nervous and anxious when they are in your clinic talking about such personal issues as wrinkles, fatty bulges, and acne, especially if it is for the first time. Your job is to break down those barriers so they feel comfortable and more relaxed. Speak slowly, deliberately, and unambiguously. Provide information in small bits, without overwhelming patients with lengthy explanations and complicated details, unless asked. Where appropriate, use an iPad, photographs, or diagrams to illustrate the theme you want to convey. Some of the most successful doctors I know use brilliant analogies to describe medical concepts and techniques that resonate well with female patients. For example, the “rock in a sock” analogy for placing oversized implants in a saggy breast. In this instance, the patient knows immediately what you are describing.

LISTEN MORE, TALK LESS

Be an active listener. Ask open-ended questions that will engage your patient in conversation. Female patients often complain that doctors do not let them fully explain what they think or feel about their condition. Whilst certain situations warrant a doctor interrupting a patient, it should be done with tact and sensitivity. This is particularly important when a doctor interrupts a patient’s list of concerns or symptoms. Guard yourself against changing the topic or imposing your opinion on the patient while she is still talking. Instead of showing your concern just by giving your opinion and offering solutions, ask questions to probe more deeply into what makes your female patient tick. Be more understanding and congenial, rather than merely offering advice and your opinion. It would behoove all doctors to alter their style in favour of a more feminine or nurturing approach where possible, to adopt a more cooperative form of doctor-patient communication. Every female patient wants more than just to be heard; she wants to be understood in terms of her thoughts, feelings, and fears. Despite all the marketing tactics you may employ to promote your clinic, word-of- mouth referrals, from one patient to another, is still the most successful approach to attracting new patients, and currently, the majority of these new patients will be female. Learning how to speak to your majority audience is therefore essential to secure a thriving practice. 

References

  1. Gillian Timothy and Sekeres, Mikkael, ‘Can Doctors be Taught How to Talk to Patients?’ (The New York Times, 2014) http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/27/can-doctors-be-taught-how-to-talk-to-patients/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
  2. Ray L. Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970), p. 80.
  3. Tannen, Deborah, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2007) 

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