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The Most Important Skills

Dec 24, 2020


by Honora Lee Wolfe


At one recent talk I gave at an acupuncture school, a student asked me what I thought was the most important skill needed to be successful. In the moment, I rattled off some platitudes about positive thinking, taking care of your health, never giving up, and the like. But having had time to think about that question, I now would say that patient communication skill is the most important thing to develop for any type of healthcare practitioner.


But wait, you say, what about knowing your herbs, point locations, needling techniques? And yes, I agree all those things are important as well. Still, I’ve seen practitioners that I did not believe to be greatly skilled clinicians, but, because of the way they communicated with patients, were really financially successful and got consistently decent results as well.


So here are my few pieces of advice for effective communication with patients.


  1. Create a few educational flyers or articles about how you help patients. Use these on your website and as handouts. These may or may not be “condition-specific.” Use a short intro about your clinical specialties and some bullet points with statements such as:


    1. Acupuncture helps all the body systems return to and remain in dynamic balance. This allows our body’s natural healing mechanisms to work more effectively.
    2. Acupuncture helps keep your immune system strong so your body can fight off disease.
    3. Chinese herbal medicine works naturally with your body to bring you back to health without side effects.
    4. Acupuncture gently fosters healthy brain chemistry to keep our emotions on an even keel.
    5. According to the WHO, acupuncture has proven to be effective in treating over 40 specific conditions! See the back of this flyer to check out the list.
    6. Our clinic specializes in supporting patients with chronic allergies (fill in your own specialty). We are here to help you experience an allergy-free season!


These are just a start. What other ways do you feel you help your patients? Don’t be shy in telling them this good news. Remember that most people don’t have any experience of Chinese medicine or acupuncture and no idea what we can do for them.


  1. Learn to do a thorough, gentle, efficient Western medical exam, as seems appropriate for each patient. This may include visual examination, palpation, percussion, listening, or other specific simple tests. Of course we do take each patient’s blood pressure, but by adding on some simple examinations appropriate to their condition, we give them reassurance that we are “real” healthcare providers. This is most important on the patient’s first assessment visit
  2. What educational tools do you use to help your patients feel more comfortable with our medicine? Brochures are great, but how about a 3-5 minute video for all new patients available on your website? If a new patient says they have not watched it, perhaps it can be shown in your history-taking room as well. In the video, use some of the statements shown above in #1 and then do a treatment demonstration on a willing patient or family member while you talk through how the needles are very fine, insertions do not create much discomfort, patients feel relaxed, and often fall asleep, etc.
  3. How about a research notebook with articles on all the conditions you like to treat that can be copied for patients to take home? This is facilitated by signage that says something like “Want a copy of research on Chinese medicine and _____? (migraines, arthritis, allergies, insomnia, infertility, etc.) Ask the front desk for a copy to take to a friend.”
  4. Speaking of signage, how about a nicely framed copy of the WHO list of conditions amenable to acupuncture? Remember that most people don’t know all the things acupuncture can do.
  5. Write a 2-3 minute “speech” about how this medicine to use in response to new patients’ inquiries. Not complicated, not technical, easy to understand.
  6. In the treatment room, touch and treat with confidence, even when you aren’t totally sure what to do. Learn to method act confident body language until you no longer need to! Just choose a treatment and do it with panache. That way you don’t lose out on the placebo effect part of every treatment and patient encounter! (At least 30+% of every successful medical treatment of any kind is the placebo effect.)
  7. Use a bonding call to build rapport. After the first treatment, call each patient within 24 hrs. Ask them how they felt after leaving your clinic, if they have any other questions, if they booked a follow-up visit, or if they understand their home care or herbal medicine instructions.
  8. Other outbound calls include a birthday call (or card), reminder calls/texts the day before each appointment, and an occasional “we haven’t seen you for a while and I just wanted to know how you are doing” call.
  9. Finally, when you touch a patient, do it with as much conscious care and affection as you can transmit through your hands. When you are with a patient, make sure they know they are the only person in the world for you during that time.


If you can manage to create a system to include even half of the above ideas, I guarantee you will keep your patients coming back longer, getting treated more frequently, and referring their friends more often.


Need to study up on your Western medical exam skills? Check out my and Dr. Bruce Robinson’s book, Western Medical Exam Skills for Asian Medicine Practitioners.


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