Whether you’re feverish, freezing, cramping up, bleeding out, coughing, sneezing, gasping, or scratching uncontrollably, there are things you just don’t want to hear when you’re sick or injured, especially from those who are supposed to be helping you. As a patient, you aren’t expected to be but so pleasant and cooperative. Healthcare workers know this, but they have gone into this line of work anyway. They want to help others in need and make a difference. I, for one, am most grateful for them, and I wish to offer at this point a blanket apology for any times when I have been less than pleasant with those giving me medical or dental assistance.

Okay, I admit it. I’ve behaved badly, especially when I’ve been in pain. My orthodontist knows this. I’m sorry I bit him when he was putting on my braces, but hey, it hurt! The orthopedist who reset my arm after I broke it falling from the monkey bars would remember my screaming at the top of my lungs when he was treating me. Sorry about his hearing loss, but hey, that hurt too. And I’m sure I created unforgettable memories for the obstetrician who delivered my son.

In hindsight, I know the pain these healthcare professionals inflicted as they were treating me was a necessary, albeit unpleasant, reality of their jobs, and I forgive them all. However, I’m a little less forgiving of those who have needlessly contributed to my distress through thoughtlessness, indifference, or insensitivity, and it is these individuals who could benefit mightily from a crash course in patient satisfaction.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few months ago when the flu was rampant in my neck of the woods, I realized I needed more help than my home medicine cabinet could provide. My doctor could “work me in” at some point later the morning I called, but there was no guarantee I would be seen immediately.

When I walked into the waiting room, I was given the once-over by what seemed about 30 pairs of eyes belonging to other patients in various stages of discomfort and despair. With difficulty, I made my way between occupied chairs and reached the glass-fronted reception desk. The staff behind the closed window never looked in my direction as I signed my name to the form on the clipboard.

Tip #1 – Patients might look like “death warmed over,” but you don’t need to act as though they are dead.

Once I located the only free chair at the rear of the waiting room, I took a seat and tried to find a magazine that might hold my interest until I could be seen. Before I could choose the lesser of all the evils, the glass window separating the receptionists from the contaminated was slid open. A voice rose above all the coughing, sneezing, and page flipping and called out my name.

Of course, everyone looked up even though I was the only one with this name. When she heard me identify myself, she called across the crowded room to ask if any of my information had changed. Apparently, this was of vital importance to everyone since again all eyes were trained on me in anticipation of my answer. Once she got my reply, she slid the window back to the “closed” position, and everyone else lost interest.

Tip #2 – Ask patients for information at the time they arrive so that they don’t have to yell information across a room full of sick people or walk back to the desk to give you the information in a less public way.

As the morning dragged on and waves of nausea pounded me at regular intervals, I took hope when another staff member opened a door and called my name. I was shown to a smaller waiting area where I recognized others who had also once occupied seats in the outer sanctum. We smiled briefly at one another in recognition and then turned our attention to another stack of dull, well-fingered, past-the-newsworthy date magazines as the clock’s minute hand moved ever forward.

The new location gave all of us sitting in waiting area #2 the chance to hear the conversation going on among the people at the reception desk. It was a lively discussion of what they had had for dinner the night before, what they’d eaten for breakfast, and what they should order for lunch. I can’t remember the particulars, but I know that the final choices involved steaming, abundant, greasy food. My immediate priority was to find the closest restroom since the very thought of what they were talking about was stirring me on more than one level.

Tip #3 – Be mindful of others who can hear what you are saying, especially if you are talking about things that might make them feel worse than they already do.

Back in the chair for a few more minutes of waiting, and then someone called my name. A nurse told me to follow her, and as we headed toward an examining room, there was one obstruction between me and my destination: scales. Pretending not to notice, I picked up my pace only to have my guide stop me in my tracks by insisting I “hop on.” I wasn’t capable of “hopping” on anything since hopping implies some sort of light-hearted yet energetic effort. That being said, scales would be the last thing I would ever hop on. Maybe I’d sneak up on them, gingerly step on them as though they were wired for detonation, but hop? I think not!

Too ill to argue semantics, I dutifully turned toward the scale but not without removing every item I had on my person that might add weight to the grand total for the day. As payback for my taking time to so disencumber myself, the nurse called out my weight loudly enough for everyone in the office (including those in the outer waiting room) to hear. I was too mortified to bother putting everything back on before escaping into the room where the nurse told me to sit on the table and the doctor would see me shortly.

Tip #4 – For many people, the issue of weight is sensitive and shouldn’t be broadcast. Just write it down, and don’t argue with patients who insist the scales are wrong.

Clearly, her idea of “shortly” and mine differed dramatically. There I sat on a table covered in a roll of butcher paper, clad in a drape that I’m pretty sure I’d put on backwards, and the temperature was a balmy 62 degrees. There weren’t magazines of any kind now, so I focused on the pharmaceutical company posters of every possible skin disorder, colon abnormality, and graphically-illustrated problem associated with diabetes that covered the room’s walls.

Before I became totally convinced I had most of these problems, the doctor opened the door and asked what had brought me in. Within minutes I had samples of drugs, prescriptions for more, and a request to come back in if I wasn’t better in a few days. I was already feeling better just to be leaving.

The drive home gave me the chance to think about this and other experiences I have had in healthcare settings and the controllable factors that might make me and other patients less stressed before, during, and after treatment. In addition to the four tips I’ve already provided about this particular visit, here are a few more that came to mind.

Tip #5 – Unless otherwise directed, call adult patients Mr., Ms., or Mrs.

A lot of people resent being called by a first name by total strangers. Test the waters by simply asking patients how they would prefer to be addressed, but don’t get off on the wrong foot by calling a patient by a first name unless you have been told to do so. Many older people (my grandmother included) see this as impertinence.

Tip #6 – Know the difference between being pleasant and friendly and being too personal.

Almost as bad as ignoring someone is assuming a relationship that doesn’t exist. Unless a patient offers personal news, don’t ask questions that might backfire or lead to protracted stories you don’t have the time or interest in hearing. “So, how did your daughter’s wedding turn out?” might seem like a safe enough question unless the answer is, “She got stood up at the altar, started drinking heavily, wrecked her car . . .”

Tip #7 – Clean up your act to establish credibility.

Settings designed for sick and injured people are pretty disgusting by their very nature, but this is no excuse for those working in such venues to look like slobs or have messy workspaces. If your goal is to help people lead healthy lives, you have an obligation to at least look clean and healthy yourself. An overabundance of anything—weight, hair, makeup, jewelry, fragrance, fingernails, etc.—is less than professional. The same holds true for workstations, examination areas, and desks. Lose the clutter, keep food out of sight, and try to make sure traces of previous patients have been removed before bringing in the next one. You have an obligation to practice what you preach.

Tip #8 – Never talk about patients within earshot of other patients.

We already know that sick people aren’t at their best when they come to a healthcare setting, but regardless of what they say or do, keep your opinions to yourself, especially if there are other patients around. You never know who might be listening. Even if patients don’t know the person you might be talking about, they may assume you will be just as vocal about them when they leave.

Tip #9 – Let the patient know what you are getting ready to do and the degree of discomfort they will likely experience as a result.

Procedures may be routine to you, but for a patient, what is about to happen may be a first-time experience. If it is something that will produce pain or stress, let them know what to expect. Sugar coating the pending procedure by saying something like “This may pinch a little bit” may prove to be a gross understatement. Forewarned is forearmed, and patients will appreciate the honesty. They may be pleasantly surprised when what happens is not as bad as they expected.

Tip #10 – Slow down and speak in plain English.

This is a follow up to Tip #9. Don’t get so caught up in the familiarity of what you are doing that you forget the level of knowledge the patient might or might not have. Speaking in acronyms, using medical jargon, or wrongly assuming everyone knows the human body as well as you do may lead to confusion or misunderstanding. Be very clear and try to use layman language without being condescending.