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Beyond the Hippocratic Oath – 3 Lessons I Wish I’d Learned in Medical School

Practice Pain Relievers

How to exceed patient expectations & assure a positive experience

In this installment of the Practice Pain Relievers video series, Dr. Neil Baum shares lessons he learned throughout his 40-year career that aren’t covered in the Hippocratic oath or medical school.



Video transcript

Having worked 40 years as a doctor, I’m sometimes asked what lessons I learned from my practice that I might offer to younger physicians. There are three I’d like to suggest. Upon graduation from medical school, every new doctor takes the Hippocratic Oath, which says, “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing.” Every doctor has it engrained in his or her DNA to help the patient and first, do no harm. Yet, there are certainly other professional tenants I feel every doctor entering the field should know that will serve him or her in good stead for an entire career in medicine.

Lesson #1: Exceed patient expectations

First, exceed patients’ expectations. Customers form perceptions about what they are going to experience from the airline industry, an accountant, a dentist and a stockbroker. But do we in the healthcare profession know the expectations that our patients are seeking?

It is also a given that the doctor will make a diagnosis and offer a treatment for the problem that the patient presents. But that is only the minimum every doctor must provide. I never say that the medications that I prescribe are better than other physicians’ in my community, or that my surgical instruments are sharper and smaller, and cause less discomfort than those of others in my area. However, what I do say is that the care you receive in my practice will exceed your expectations.

I have surveyed my patients and I know that they expect to be seen within a few minutes of their appointment time. They expect all their phone calls to be returned by me or someone in my staff in a timely manner. They expect I will answer all questions about their medical condition in each doctor-patient encounter. They expect I will have the latest technology, both on the clinical aspect, as well as the business component of my practice.

Beyond the Hippocratic oath lesson #2

Second, I wish my medical school had taught the importance of assuring every patient of a positive experience before, during and after coming to my clinic. I refer to these as magical moments of truth.

For example, the first interaction with the patient is often the telephone. You can manage that moment of truth by ensuring that the phone is answered by the third ring. The receptionist should answer with a smile that can be heard on the other end of the line. A receptionist can easily accomplish thus by placing a mirror in front of the telephone, for visual feedback.

Also, the receptionist should make certain to use the caller’s name at least twice during the phone conversation, such as, “Mrs. Smith, it is nice to speak with you, and look forward to your first visit to our office. If you have any questions, Mrs. Smith, let us hear from you.”

The best patient experience continues after the patient makes a follow-up appointment and leaves. A good example is the practice of sending patients a regular newsletter, letting patients know what is happening in the practice, and what patients can do to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Lesson #3: Answer all questions

Another good example, perhaps the best, is calling special patients at home to check on their condition or answer any questions they may have. Examples of these special patients are those who have been recently discharged from the hospital, patients having one-day procedures under anesthesia or sedation, patients with complications or side effects, and patients with lingering questions about their treatment or conditions.

While the busy doctor’s schedule may not allow such calls to all special patients on any given day, someone in the office, such as a medical assistant, can call patients late in the day to make sure they are clear about how to take their medications, how to manage their wounds and dressings, and when to make the next appointment. This covers most questions patients will have, and a call from the office is very reassuring. And there are two benefits: first, these calls preempt many patients from calling doctors or their office at night or on the weekends. Second, patients are greatly comforted in knowing that the doctor and the practice genuinely care.

While not part of any standard medical curriculum I know of, these lessons have served me very well for many decades. They are inexpensive and easily implemented by the doctor and staff, and they ignite exceptionally positive word-of-mouth that reduces the pain and enhances the pleasure of practice.