Practice Leaders Can Improve Care by Engaging the Five Senses

Consider the average turnaround time (TAT) per patient for the majority of tests you perform daily. TAT matters because it has become one of the most common performance metrics in the imaging industry. But patient-centered care also has become more of a priority. And while serving in your role as a radiology provider, how do you maintain that quick TAT while also providing quality and focusing on the patient? It’s a difficult balance.

Five years ago, I worked in a large hospital as a healthcare project manager involved in design and construction projects building patient environments. After a routine physical check-up, I was forced to move from being an employee to a patient with less than a week’s notice.

During my first appointment, with a multitude of thoughts racing through my head and unable to focus on reading, I simply observed and absorbed the details of the waiting room and the other patients. I watched the staff—how they interacted with the patients, their co-workers and the auxiliary staff. As I transitioned from the waiting room to the lab and finally the exam room, I took in the sights, sounds and smells and became increasingly anxious.

When I returned to work eight months later, it became obvious to me that something had to change. As a result of my experience, we completely revised our approach to the Cancer Center renovation to engage our patient’s five senses.

Let’s try an exercise. Take a few seconds to count from one to seven. Do it again, but this time, look around and notice how much you can see. Eyes hold the most sensory receptors of all the senses. Seven seconds is about the average time it takes to visualize an environment and form an opinion. Since patients are already very stressed, every little thing is going to make them more anxious, frustrated and challenged.

To be more effective, more efficient and increase your TAT while still performing patient-centered care, start with the five senses—your own five senses.

Pleasure is primarily derived from the five senses. Let’s try another exercise. Think about your answers to the following questions:

  • What is the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen? I’m talking about the kind of thing you see and it takes your breath away or makes your heart swell with joy and awe.
  • What is your favorite smell? Just thinking about it should bring a grin to your face.
  • What is the most beautiful or enjoyable sound? Perhaps it’s a song, the waves on a beach or a child’s laughter.
  • What is your favorite tactile sensation? Silk? A hug? 
  • What is your favorite thing to taste? What makes your mouth water just from thinking about it?

Now, take 10 seconds to close your eyes and bring to mind your answers. For example, watching a sunset, smelling a steak cooking on the grill, hearing the ocean waves, feeling the wind caresses your neck, sipping a glass of fine wine. Engage all five senses in your mind at once.

After those 10 seconds, how do you feel?  Are you more relaxed? How is the quality of your breath? Is it different? In 10 seconds, you engaged the five senses in a mindfulness practice. You gave yourself a mental and physical break. You also engaged neuroplasticity. You improved your wellness a little bit during that time.

People react, often subconsciously, to energy levels. You can tell when someone is angry without them ever saying a word. You try to avoid them. On the other hand, someone who is happy is more magnetic. If you are stressed, your patients are going to feel stressed too. And while we can’t always control our environment, we can control how we choose to react to it.

Patients are a captive audience and they take in everything. You don’t have to become a patient to put yourself in the shoes of a patient. Just take a little time to walk through the flow of a patient’s experience.

What is he or she seeing?

What is he or she hearing?

What is the vibe of the waiting room? Is the TV broadcasting something inspirational or relaxing or something that contributes to overall stress? What other noises does the patient hear? Does the MRI make loud, and thus scary, sounds? Are you speaking to the patient in a soft, caring tone and reassuring him or her that everything is OK?

Let’s not underestimate touch, even in our litigious society. I can’t tell you how many times as a patient, the medical professional would ask to touch me or apologize for a cold hand. As a patient, that mattered to me because I felt they were engaged and cared.

How are you showing your patient you care?

Capture the scents. Antiseptic is inevitable, but what else is there? When I was a patient, I was super sensitive to cleaners, sanitizer, food and other ordinary hospital smells. Is there a way to change the aroma in that environment?

Last of all, what is the patient tasting? Is there coffee, water and snacks available or are they even allowed to have food based on their procedure? What about the medication or drink they need to have before or after a procedure and how does that affect their taste buds? How can you make things more appealing?

The more relaxed and calm the patient is, the more effective and efficient patient management will be. Engage your five senses daily and commit to positively engaging your patient’s five senses, always. Little changes can make an enormous impact for both patients and providers. The side effect is improved patient satisfaction scores as well as your own personal satisfaction.  


Cathy Dolan-Schweitzer is the president of Health Well Done in Yonkers, N.Y.