How Body Language Impacts Doctor-To-Patient Relationship

Body language has a huge impact on how doctors interact with their patients. These three non-verbal adjustments can improve the way healthcare professionals communicate with patients.

Body language, for doctors, is something that will need to be paid attention to. When you speak with your patients, you may not be saying what you think you’re saying. According to Professor Albert Mehrabian, the noted psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, only 7% of communication is based on the words you say. The other 93% is based on the way in which those words are delivered, including tone of voice and body language.

In order to develop a beneficial relationship with your patients, you have to have clear communication. Effective body language helps remove communication ambiguities and can help calm your patients. The patient needs to feel that they can trust you, or they may not be able to accurately communicate what is wrong, making your job as a physician more difficult or even impossible.

Tone of Voice

While only 7% of communication may be based on the words you say, more than a third (38%) actually comes from your tone of voice. If you’ve ever heard the often shouted argument, “It’s not what you said! It’s how you said it!” then this probably makes sense.

When dealing with a patient, make sure that your tone of voice matches what you are saying. Patients will pick up on incongruities between what you are saying and the tone of voice you are using to say it. Keep your tone warm and comforting, but don’t overdo it. Put too much into it and it can seem insincere.

Eyes and Face

Effective body language begins with the eyes and the face. Eye contact is one of the most powerful forms of nonverbal communication, but many physicians forget to utilize it. Often, as the physician is pondering how to diagnose the patient’s condition or poring over the patient’s chart looking for new insight, they completely forget to make eye contact with the patient, even occasionally. Unintentionally, these physicians send a message of disinterest or condescension.

Karen Leland, a patient relations consultant for Sterling Consulting Group, recommends that, instead of staring at the patient’s chart and writing down notes, you instead pay attention as the patient speaks, showing that you are listening. Then, after the patient has finished, tell them that you are going to write down what they just said instead of unintentionally avoiding eye contact the entire time.

Of course, it’s also important not to overdo it with eye contact. A good guideline to follow is the 50/70 rule. When you are speaking to the patient, try to hold eye contact for about 50% of the time. When you are listening, keep eye contact for about 70% of the time.

How Body Language Impacts Doctor-To-P...

Smiling is also an important aspect of body language for doctors, particularly in proper context. Frowning, scowling, or grimacing as you discuss treatment with a patient can make them feel nervous or negative, and one of your goals as a physician is to dispel that fear and help make them comfortable.

Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist and Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that physicians develop what he calls “a kind of soft Mona Lisa smile and gentleness in your eyes” in order to build feelings of trust. Smile with both your mouth and your eyes; you might even practice this smile in the mirror each morning or evening.

Shoulders, Legs, and Posture

The way you stand and hold your body as you interact with a patient carries the bulk of your communication. Mehrabian’s research indicates that 55% of communication is based on your physical body language, and most of that is based on your stance and posture rather than your facial expressions. In fact, during a 2012 Princeton study, researchers found that participants in the study who were shown a picture of only an individual’s facial expression only had a 50-50 chance of accurately determining the emotion that the person was experiencing. Meanwhile, participants who were shown the face and body together, or even the body alone, were much more accurate in their predictions.

An aggressive posture, even if the individual is not actively trying to be aggressive, can be very intimidating to a patient. When a physician walks into an exam room, they often stand while the patient sits. While it is likely not the physician’s intention, this is an aggressive stance and can make patients uncomfortable. In this scenario, the physician is, quite literally, talking down to the patient, which can give the impression that the physician sees the patient as beneath them, or even below notice. To keep the patient more comfortable, the online marketing platform PatientPop recommends putting yourself physically on the same level as the patient instead. If the patient is sitting, sit in a chair across from them, putting both of you on a similar eye level.

While you sit across from a patient, however, be sure not to slouch. It is very easy for a patient to mistake slouching as either a lack of energy or a lack of interest in the patient, neither of which reflects well on a physician. If you sit up straight, however, or even lean slightly toward the patient, it expresses clear interest in what the patient has to say.


Body language is something that many doctors and healthcare professionals tend to overlook, but remains important, nevertheless. The next time you are communicating with a patient or even a colleague, try to remember these helpful body language tips for doctors.

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