My doctor made me cry. It sums up everything that is wrong with health care.

I had never cried in a doctor’s office. But there I was, a few weeks ago, sobbing in the exam room.

As a new resident of Fort Myers, Florida, I was trying to establish a relationship with a local primary care physician. From the start, the doctor focused on his computer, not on me. She stared at a screen, while I stared into space.

She asked me why I had an inhaler prescribed by an old doctor. I explained that hay fever leaves me breathless. But his screen said I needed an asthma diagnosis, which I don’t have. Then she asked me why my blood pressure was so high – a first for me. Puzzled, I said that I had ended a longtime friendship the night before. Again hijacked: Turns out there’s no software code for it. I needed a dose of kindness and a little clinical insight. I got clicks and keystrokes instead.

Tears flowed soon after. All I wanted was a human connection, but the doctor-patient relationship – the most important element in all health care – was dead on arrival.

To be clear, the doctor is as much a victim as I am. In more than 20 years as a patient advocate and policy follower, I have seen how electronic records chain physicians to keyboards, how independent primary care physicians disappear, and how financial incentives in government billing leave physicians less time to spend with patients. The focus is on each of these issues, and many more. Yet, not enough emphasis is placed on the broader crisis they have created. The doctor-patient relationship breaks down.

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The breakdown of relationships brings health care to the breaking point. In conversations with hundreds of healthcare professionals, I’ve heard that it’s nearly impossible to develop the kind of authentic relationships that facilitate better health for patients and greater job satisfaction for physicians. Not surprising half of the doctors and nurses are burned. No wonder they are leave health care en masse. And no wonder half of americans say health care is deteriorating. The pandemic hasn’t helped at all, thanks to virtual tours, masks that hide smiles and politicization of medical treatment which introduced mistrust into the doctor-patient relationship.

The lack of connection I experienced is costly in human and financial terms. Studies show a strong doctor-patient relationship improves patient health outcomes. Evidence also shows that an ongoing link between a patient and a treating physician reduces costs. Without it, patients will go anywhere to receive care, regardless of quality or cost. They go to pharmacies, urgent care and emergency rooms, instead of coordinating with just one doctor. The result is as documented as it is painful: higher costs and poorer health.

There is an urgent need to restore the relationships at the heart of health care.

There is an urgent need to restore the relationships at the heart of health care.

There is an urgent need to restore the relationships at the heart of health care. Patient well-being, doctor’s development and healthcare costs depend on it.

Long-term reforms depend on policy makers and health professionals, but in the short term there are important steps each of us can take.

For starters, patients can connect with their health care providers on a more personal level. After all, the doctor-patient relationship is a two-way street. Remember when we all pots and pans banged during the pandemic honor our healthcare heroes? We should do something similar, albeit calmer. Honestly, I could have done a better job on my recent appointment. A few personal questions would have gone a long way.

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Physicians can redesign their workflow and leverage team members to reduce time spent on documentation. This will free up time to develop more meaningful relationships with patients. When the system too often gets in the way, it’s time to fight back, one conversation at a time.

Christine Bechtel, a former member of the US Department of Health and Human Services IT Policy Committee, is co-creator of 3rd Conversation.

Christine Bechtel, a former member of the US Department of Health and Human Services IT Policy Committee, is co-creator of 3rd Conversation.

Patients and doctors can also come together to ask hospital or doctor’s office administrators to reduce the relentless pressure for efficiency and create more time for relationship building. I have seen a united front succeed many times, most recently in the health systems of Rochester, New York, and Jackson, Mississippi. Heartfelt conversations have led to less physician burnout and better patient experiences, while inspiring hospital administrators to prioritize connections at the heart of healthcare.

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Health care needs an infusion of relationships, for the benefit of all in health care and society as a whole. I’m not the only one who had a horrible experience at the doctor’s office, and the doctor I saw wasn’t the only one who was upset. We are drifting apart, but if we work together, we can begin to heal our increasingly sick healthcare system.

Christine Bechtel, former member of the US Department of Health and Human Services Health IT Steering Committeeis co-creator of 3rd Talk.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Health care must be based on a strong doctor-patient relationship

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