Bedside Manners in Aesthetic Practice
Updated: Aug 25
Effective communication is a crucial aspect of any clinical practice, especially one specialising in aesthetic medicine.
While effective communication skills in healthcare can impact patient safety, quality of care, and workplace efficiency, these skills are often neglected in formal medical education.
Although all undergraduate medical students enrolled in a Malaysian study agreed soft skills are essential for physicians, they tend to focus on technical skills during their education. A Singapore study highlighted young physicians often struggle with communication due to their use of complex medical jargon and overestimation of their abilities, leading to unhappiness and complaints among patients, while other studies revealed the majority of medical malpractice claims are the result of poor physician-patient communication.
Physician-patient communication goes beyond being polite or giving and receiving information. Clinical communications require advanced emotional management skills, such as reflecting on actions, managing feelings and expectations, in addition to communicating information.
While crucial in all medical disciplines, these skills are even more crucial in aesthetic medicine as unlike medical patients, aesthetic patients are not seeking out a cure or addressing a primary need, but undergoing elective treatments.
Studies show gaining deeper insight into the patient’s emotions, beliefs and preferences will help to set expectations and improve satisfaction following aesthetic treatments, leading to better results, fewer complaints and improved patient retention.
Two leading aesthetic physicians, Dr Christina Chea aesthetic physician and founder of Klinik Christina Chea in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Dr Henry Tanojo, dermatologist and owner of Melania Aesthetic Dermatology Clinic in Surabaya, Indonesia, share the building blocks of good communication for aesthetic practitioners.
1. Build trust from the start
Dr Henry Tanojo says doctors should demonstrate strong listening and communication skills during the first consultation to establish trust with patients so they can obtain a detailed medical history to enable them to assess their suitability for treatments.
“When meeting patients who have never undergone any procedure, I always start by asking how they learned about my practice to understand them better. Individuals who shop for clinics tend to be more price-sensitive and may have unrealistic expectations of treatment outcomes, while patients who have undergone procedures and have been satisfied with the results tend to have more realistic and reasonable expectations,” he shares.
Dr Christina Chea stresses the importance of having emotional intelligence to build rapport with patients.
“Patients come from all walks of life with different experiences of aesthetic treatments. New patients may come in knowing what treatments and outcomes they want but are often unable to articulate their needs. They may deliberately conceal their medical history if it hinders them from getting what they want. Some patients may have had a bad experience elsewhere before approaching you, or they may have personal insecurities," she says.
"My goal is to establish trust with my patients, and I try to achieve this by demonstrating empathy when communicating with them. This usually encourages them to be more honest and forthcoming about their concerns, insecurities, medical history, and eventually be more open to treatment recommendations. This enables practitioners to manage expectations and minimise the likelihood of patients having a bad experience."
2. Practice honest, open communication
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and a patient's opinion of the outcome of a treatment can be highly subjective, underlining the importance of managing the patient's expectations when it comes to the longevity and outcome of treatments, potential side effects, complications, and discomfort during and after procedures.
“In my practice, patients tend to desire more permanent and dramatic changes with minimally-invasive treatments which tend to be less expensive than surgery. While minimally-invasive treatments such as botulinum toxin injections, dermal fillers and collagen biostimulators can visibly improve one's appearance, the effects tend to be not as long-lasting as surgical procedures. This has to be clearly communicated from the start,” says Dr Tanojo.
“Physicians must take extra care and time to assure patients and allay their concerns prior to administering any treatment. We should educate them that the side effects of minimally-invasive procedures are often mild and temporary, and provide solutions if they do not resolve as quickly as expected,” he adds.
“Some patients have a lower pain threshold or need a little more care than others. Rather than dismissing their concerns or talking down to them, always be honest about how uncomfortable a treatment might feel based on your own and/or your other patients’ experience, so they are mentally prepared for what to expect,” explains Dr Chea.
3. Respect patients; give them time
Extensive knowledge of facial anatomy and treatment techniques is often as important as professional conduct and good bedside manners when managing patients, says Dr Chea.
“Appearing distracted while talking to patients, promoting beauty ideals patients do not approve of, pressurising patients to undergo certain treatments, criticising a patient’s appearance, and badmouthing or putting down fellow doctors are major red flags. Such behaviour not only harms the doctor-patient relationship but also hurts the doctor’s reputation and practice in the long run,” she warns.
Dr Tanojo agrees, “I always give patients time to consider their options and even seek a second opinion before committing to any treatment. In fact, I'm willing to offer a full refund if patients change their minds right before or even during the procedure, as forcing patients into treatments when they are feeling uncomfortable or uncertain would likely lead to them having a bad experience with you, which you want to avoid as much as possible."
4. Go the extra mile
Showing empathy for each patient every single day can be challenging and draining for doctors, leave alone going the extra mile to improve patient experience.
“At my practice, we make every effort to keep patients at ease. By doing the little things such as putting away their belongings after they have changed into their robes, offering them a warm drink, using gate control techniques to enhance their treatment experience, and providing clear post-treatment instructions, we are helping to alleviate anxiety or discomfort they may have before and during the procedure,” says Dr Chea.
“We always follow up with my patients after every treatment, as patients who feel valued and cared for are also more likely to be honest about their concerns and any side effects when they arise, which enables us to mitigate them sooner and reduce the likelihood of them being dissatisfied with our services,” Dr Tanojo shares.
5. Pick your battles; own your mistakes
Dr Tanojo advises to steer clear of patients who have unrealistic demands or expectations, or tend to be dismissive of expert advice.
“In my experience, these patients are likely to be dissatisfied with your services regardless of treatment outcomes, and are likely to find something to complain about afterwards. Taking on such patients puts you at a higher risk of disparaging comments and sometimes even defamatory reviews online, which may not only tarnish your reputation, but lead to long and expensive legal battles. I always screen my patients during the initial consultation for any potential red flags before taking them on," shares Dr Tanojo.
Even the most experienced physicians can make mistakes or encounter unexpected complications when performing treatments. Dr Chea says doctors are advised to be prompt in addressing mistakes and correcting them as soon as possible.
“Although as doctors we take every precaution and care to minimise or reduce the likelihood of side effects and preempt them wherever possible, sometimes patients can experience unexpected side effects for a variety of reasons. The patient may be unaware of allergies to certain medications, or they may not have adhered to post-treatment care as advised. It’s also possible the wrong product or solution was administered during the treatment, leading to results that fall below expectations"
"Instead of playing the blame game or shirking responsibility, I prefer to take a more proactive approach. Usually, I start by apologising sincerely and then work towards finding a solution that satisfies all parties involved. By being receptive rather than defensive, we can attempt to salvage patients’ trust and confidence in us and in the practice, and soften the blow of the mistake,” says Dr Chea.