Reducing Patient Anxiety


How to address common fears and concerns that can cause gaps in care

For many patients, anxiety about doctors’ appointments is common. Whether it’s “white coat syndrome” — high blood pressure that occurs in medical settings — or full-blown iatrophobia, a rare but extreme fear of doctors or medical tests that can result in panic attacks, anxiety may cause patients to avoid seeking medical care. Here’s what doctors can do to help anxious patients.

The dangers of avoiding medical care

One survey found that one in three Americans avoid going to their doctor, even when they think they need medical care, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And the COVID-19 pandemic has likely increased these statistics, due to fears about exposure and infection.

Let patients know that regular medical care, including eye exams, is the best way to maintain their health and identify issues early.

As doctors know, of course, skipping medical exams and tests puts patients at risk for serious, often irreversible diseases and complications. Undiagnosed, untreated high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase the risk for a potentially fatal stroke or heart attack. And many vision-threatening conditions can be more effectively managed if caught early, too.

Let patients know that eye doctors play a key role in overall health. Most people don’t realize that many different diseases manifest in the eye, and that nearly 300 diseases can be detected from the eye. Spread the message to patients that an eye exam is a non-invasive way that a doctor can look inside the body, without a blood test, imaging or surgery.

Signs of anxiety and tools for doctor-patient conversations

So how can doctors help patients with anxiety? First, learn to recognize the signs. Some patients may tell you outright that they’re nervous about a test or diagnosis. Other patients may show physical reactions such as rapid breathing and sweating, shaking, a racing heart, dizziness or nausea.

If you notice these symptoms, slow down the exam and take the time to explain what you will be doing, suggests Arian Fartash, O.D. This may be a good time to show patients an illustrated animation of the eye’s anatomy, for instance. Unlike a surgical video, these animations are not scary, overly graphic or clinical and may put them at ease.

If appropriate, Dr. Fartash may try to lighten the mood with humor, and “another tool that I use is to ask if the patient has any pets or children. Usually talking to a patient about something that brings them joy will distract them from their anxiety and calm them down,” she wrote in the Review of Optometric Business.

Avoid medical jargon with patients, not just the anxious ones. Easy-to-understand educational videos can help explain conditions and treatments.

Dr. Fartash also suggests avoiding medical jargon with anxious patients — and in fact, this is a best practice with any patient. “Using scary, big words can intimidate patients, and you also don’t want them to start Googling these terms either because they may find things on the internet that are untrue and terrifying,” she wrote. Providing patients with educational videos about their condition or treatment is a good way to avoid this, too.

For more tips on this topic, see 3 Things Doctors Can Do to Improve Patient Communication.

What patients can do to ease their anxiety

Lastly, there are some practical steps patients can take to curb their anxiety. For example, suggest that they request the first appointment of the day to minimize their wait time. Or, offer patients the option of a telehealth appointment if possible and that may help them to feel less anxious. For patients with severe anxiety about medical situations, you might refer them to a therapist or counselor who can work with them on overcoming their fears.

With some awareness and a few strategies, doctors can help put anxious patients at ease and encourage them to get the care they need.

We at Rendia know that patients’ perception of their wait time is what matters most. For tips on how to engage patients while they wait, download How to Design the Perfect Waiting Room.


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