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Good Impressions: How to Put Your Surgical Patients at Ease

By Julie Snow

Medical Technologies


Since it only takes mere seconds for human beings to subconsciously decide if another person is trustworthy and competent, giving a first-rate first impression is vital. This is especially true for surgical patients who may naturally be feeling nervous and suspicious upon arrival at your clinic or hospital.

Research, according to an online Q&A with social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School, shows that 80-90 percent of an overall first impression relies on our snap judgement regarding two simple questions:

  1. Can I trust this person?
  2. Can I respect this person’s capabilities?

Knowing the answers to these questions are so important because when we find ourselves in a place of vulnerability (for example, a doctor’s office), we instinctively work to defend ourselves against any threat of danger.

Here’s a closer look at how nurses can positively give the answers to these two questions, immediately placing their patients at ease.

Can Your Patients Trust You?

The subconscious pressure of meeting a new person, especially when in a new environment, can be justifiably intense. Patients can often feel nervous, scared, suspicious, and vulnerable.

Most of us assume that showing our own competence is the most important factor in establishing trust. Unfortunately, without first establishing trust, exhibiting our competence may come across as showing our dominance instead. This makes the other person put up defenses or build a communication wall rather than open up to a friendly and trustworthy relationship.

If your patient doesn’t trust you, he or she might feel threatened, shut down emotionally, become defensive, withhold information, or not listen. When trust is established, your patient is more likely to open up about concerns, ask more questions, give you accurate information, and be more comfortable and calm.

So how do you, as a nursing professional, establish an immediate level of trust that is conducive to putting your patients at ease? It’s surprising how far making small talk can go in creating a valued relationship. Another way is to ask a question and actively listen to the response. Patients want to know that you heard and understood what they are trying to tell say.

Can Your Patients Respect Your Competence?

Only after you have established trust with your patients will they view your strength (or competency) as protection rather than a threat. In other words, if your patient doesn’t trust you, your efforts to show your competence will backfire and you may elicit suspicion or come across as manipulative.

When competence is projected without first establishing trust, patients may feel threatened, patronized or disrespected, resentful, and hostile. When trust is established first, your patient can relax, be themselves, and communicate openly. They may also be more willing to allow treatment, take advice, and apply counsel.

This brings up the question of how do you, as a nursing professional, establish your competence while maintaining trust? The answer is to not overweigh your strengths at the expense of expressing kindness. Remembering this and practicing it often will open up your patients to willingly accept your competency and gain more confidence in your strengths.

Three First Impressions

You and your staff are an extension of the surgeon and must convey that you are both trustworthy and competent. When it comes to giving your patients a good first impression, there are actually three separate points of contact where this can take place:

  1. Over the Phone: Often, a patient will call and ask questions before coming into the clinic for a procedure. This may be your first point of contact and it carries a lot of weight in how your patient will feel before arrival.
  • Don’t let the phone ring more than three times before answering.
  • Give a consistent greeting.
  • Always ask before putting your patient on hold and keep hold times to a minimum.
  • Do not eat, drink, or chew gum.
  • Speak slowly.
  • Avoid using speakerphone.
  • When necessary, use the mute button.
  • Let your patient be in control of the disconnect (let them hang up first).
  • Reply to voicemails.


  1. In the Waiting or Procedure Room: If a patient walks into the waiting or procedure room and it instantly appears friendly, calm, clean, and professional, then he or she will feel much more comfortable and confident in your medical practice.
  • Keep walkways clear and wide enough for wheelchairs.
  • Offer assistance onto the exam table or into the procedure chair.
  • When possible, speak in a hushed tone to protect your patient’s privacy.
  • Show educational videos.
  • Offer free Wi-Fi.
  • Be sure trash receptacles are emptied frequently.
  • Use fresh flowers and tasteful art.
  • Maintain an organized reception desk.


  1. Upon Meeting: When first greeting your patient, treat them as valuable and worthy of your attention. In return, he or she will be more open with information, questions, and concerns.
  • Use your patient’s name throughout the conversation.
  • Greet and introduce yourself to family members.
  • Practice your small talk.
  • Remember your manners … say “Please” and “Thank you.”
  • Listen actively and do not interrupt.
  • Sit up straight, make eye contact, and smile.
  • Keep your own appearance well-groomed and pleasant.
  • Take a deep inhale and exhale to calm yourself between patients.


Putting it all Together

Since first impressions are difficult to change, it is vital that you start off on the right foot. After all, your patient is depending on you and literally putting their health in your hands. Be sure you offer every one of them the reassurance that they need in order to feel safe and comfortable under your care.

And remember, once you accept the significance of trustworthiness over competence, you will be better able to give a first-rate first impression, every time.



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