EHR Etiquette and the Importance of Eye Contact in Clinician-Patient Communication

Another guest post from Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM, following her much-commented earlier post.

Lisa is Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine. Lisa teaches Online Consumer Health and Web Strategies for Health Communication. A social media user herself, Lisa (Twitter, LinkedIn) blogs on health and is Editor-in-Chief of eLearn Magazine, where she blogs on education.


I had an interesting juxtaposition of events. While waiting in Peets, a coffee shop in Lexington Center, I watched the friendly discussions between the baristas and customers. I then went to a doctor’s appointment, where a nurse stood typing at a laptop asking me a series of questions, including “Are you in pain?” and “Do you feel safe at home?” She didn’t look at me once as she read and typed.

Eye Contact with the Patient, Not the Computer, Is Paramount

Shouldn’t the intimacy of these questions mandate more eye contact than the less consequential discussions about today’s special roast and the weather? This is not jumping on the “customer” bandwagon, which has extended to some schools using “customer” instead of “student”. This is a matter of respect when asking personal questions and effectiveness at eliciting a meaningful response.

Ted Eytan, MD, MS, MPH, empathized with my experience. After his practice implemented an EHR, a patient told him, “You’re the only doctor who has looked me in the eye in the last 6 months of coming here.” Ted said, “It was like a dagger in my heart to hear that, and I am sure it would be for any other clinician.”

Computers in the Examining Room Should Not Be “Mysterious Intruders”

Danny Sands, MD, had great insights on what happens when a computer is introduced into the examining room. He said, “Interacting with a patient alone is a two-way conversation.  However, when there is a computer in the room, it is part of the conversation.  It both processes and provides information, and, because of that, it must be positioned in such a way that it can be a part of the conversation without being an imposition, just like if there was another person in the room. Ideally, with a laptop or desktop computer, the computer would be at the apex of an equilateral triangle with the human participants at other vertices.  With a tablet computer, the computer should be held by the user as they sit side-by-side.  In either case, the screen should be easily visible to both (but it should be possible to temporarily shield it from the patient when necessary). Too often, as in the situation you describe, the computer is a mysterious intruder in the room, and the goal of the clinician is to interact with the patient only as a means to the end of entering the appropriate information into the computer program.  This can be blamed on poor room layout, bad user habits, and badly-created user interfaces. Some would also blame the bizarre reimbursement system that rewards quality documentation above quality care.”

EHR Etiquette Should Include “Emotional Contact”

Pamela Katz Ressler, RN, BSN, HN-BC, similarly, believes medical professionals have prioritized information gathering over communication. She said, “While it is essential to collect information to arrive at a correct diagnosis, simply collecting information without addressing the human experience creates disconnection instead of connection; often leading to dissatisfaction by both the patient and provider.”

Joe Kvedar, MD, agrees with Pam about distinguishing between collecting necessary data and connecting with patients. When patients invest so much to get to and be in a doctor’s office, he believes, they deserve emotional contact including eye contact. Joe and I discussed telemedicine and how the “technical artifact of how cameras are placed on laptops” limits gaze awareness.

The different technologies for physician-patient communication all convey different types and amounts of information, Joe went on to say, and too much focus is on tools, rather than human communication. I remember when airports first used kiosks for check-in, and I answered questions on a screen about transporting packages that had been given to me by strangers. While I appreciated the speed of check-in, I felt less safe boarding a plane, hypothesizing that trained airline personnel might detect terrorists by tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. Just like, as Joe said, doctors obtain an enormous amount of information from looking at their patients.

Beverley Kane, MD, who teaches about EHR etiquette and worked with Danny on the first email guidelines for physicians, agrees. She noted the irony of how people tell their hairdressers more than they tell their doctors. Beauticians are often far more responsive and more sympathetic.

EHR’s Do Not Inherently Dehumanize; It Depends on How They Are Used

Following my experience with the nurse, the doctor walked in, shook my hand, and looked at me almost the entire time. He looked up one piece of information on the laptop in the corner – no triangle here – but it took under a minute.

My day ended at my acting class, where, coincidentally, we did exercises that focused on eye contact. In one, we tossed a ball at someone only after establishing eye contact; another was about the impact of physical distance and observation on intimacy. These exercises increased my own sensitivity to how powerful eye contact is, and how different stimuli, like touch and sight, can reinforce each other. Ultimately, better healthcare outcomes will come from verbal and non-verbal communication that is as attentive as in the coffee shop – or at the hairdresser’s.

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17 Responses to “EHR Etiquette and the Importance of Eye Contact in Clinician-Patient Communication”

  1. #EHR Etiquette and the Importance of Eye Contact in Clinician-Patient #Communication http://bit.ly/9Azscg

  2. Susannah Fox says:

    Lisa, thank you so much for this thoughtful post.

    I joked today that if someone asked me where I “exist” (ie, do they need anything more than my email address to reach me) I’d say I was “half and half” – half online, half offline. I don’t get eye contact online, but I don’t mind. I wonder how far in the future we’ll all be comfortable with online-only interactions.

    I know online conversation is completely different (at this time) from the clinical setting you describe, but thanks for inspiring new thoughts & ideas.

  3. A couple of thoughts on the physician-patient communications aspects of the EHR:

    1) My physician spends the first minute or 2 rifling through my “paper record” trying to find recent lab results, visit notes from last visit and doesn’t look at me. I understand that my doctor has to familiarize himself with my record. I don’t expect him to “look at me” following the face-to-face greeting, handshake as he gets up to speed. EHRs are simply another way of communicating information.

    2) Research suggests that many patients are quite receptive to IT if they understand how the doctor uses it with respect to managing the patient’s care. This requires the physician to help set the patient’s expectations relative to the EHR, just as they would a new electronic BP monitoring system. Physicians with good patient communications skills already shouldn’t find this hard to do.

    3) EHRs are typically designed for clinicians not patients. As such, most EHRs do not collect/report much non-clinical information about the patient, i.e., patient health beliefs, preferences, previous experiences. My dentist for example knows that I prefer using a “bite block” so I don’t have to strain my jaw holding my mouth open during procedures. It would help a great deal if patients could see a practical application of an EHR like this that they can relate to.

  4. Thanks, Lisa for this post. I couldn´t agree more on the sensitive topic of eye-to-eye contact. As I mentioned on my post on telemedicine (URL http://goo.gl/Wm3J )an individualized context should be taken always and have the best from both telemedicine and personalized medicine

  5. T3: Can SM dehumanize? Without eye contact (see my post, http://is.gd/aNBBv) and touch, is more lost as well? #RNchat

  6. RT @pamressler Quoted on provider-patient communication and electronic health record etiquette by @lisagualtieri http://bit.ly/awRRUt

  7. I am stunned by the fact that in a society as wise and intelligent as ours, that so few people seem to pay attention to valuable options which are readily usable to them to enhance their personal health. It seems that a majority of people are more interested in a band aid in the form of a MD visit and precriptions than in overseeing their own wellness process, and doing so in a way that is natural, predictable, and sustainable. That is what makes me value endeavors like yours to train and prompt individuals to action. I hope that through these attempts, and others, that awareness increases speedily and the population at large comes back to a outlook of personalized health that doesn’t depend upon specialists and drugs.

  8. Thank you, @kelconnors. Topic: intersection of health & technology from patient perspective. Example is EHR Etiquette http://is.gd/aNBBv.

  9. Luis Saldana says:

    EHR Etiquette and the Importance of Eye Contact in Clinician-Patient Communication | e-Patients.net: http://bit.ly/ceG43J via @addthis

  10. Mark Oehlert says:

    RT @lisagualtieri: Thx @kelconnors. intersection of health & tech from patient perspective. Example is EHR Etiquette http://is.gd/aNBBv

  11. Paul Wicks says:

    I was thinking about this today; where are double-sided LCD monitors when you need them?!

  12. @DrDannySands: The doctor, patient, computer triangle http://is.gd/aNBBv RT @physicianpulse NYT: Physician use of #ehr http://nyti.ms/cPy7Fs

  13. Howard Luks says:

    RT @lisagualtieri: @DrDannySands: The doctor, patient, computer triangle http://is.gd/aNBBv RT @physicianpulse NYT: Physician use of #eh …

  14. @gfry, meet @MichaelEllsberg, fellow New Yorker and author of The Power of Eye Contact. Very relevant to #EHR adoption http://is.gd/aNBBv

  15. Patient concerns about EHRs by @ServicesatXerox http://pitch.pe/53311 but did they ask about eye contact? http://is.gd/aNBBv

  16. [...] healthcare professional hunched over a laptop and not making eye contact with me (which inspired a blog post on the role of eye contact in physician-patient communication).  It seemed like the only purpose [...]

  17. [...] healthcare professional hunched over a laptop and not making eye contact with me (which inspired a blog post on the role of eye contact in physician-patient communication).  It seemed like the only purpose [...]

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