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What’s In a Smile?

At a recent conference, I was speaking about communication in the healthcare setting and suggested that the major premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, has a lot to tell us about how we interact with our patients.  Gladwell provides data showing that we all make snap decisions and in fact, we usually decide whether we like someone within the first few seconds of meeting them.  For this reason, it’s important to set ourselves up to make the best impression on our patients – even before we walk in the exam room.  One thing we can do to create a good first impression and establish rapport is to smile at our patients when we greet them.  Patients like seeing doctors who look like they enjoy what they do, and who look happy to see them.  It definitely gives a much better impression than when we walk into a room with a frown on our face because we’re still thinking about something unfortunate that just happened or worrying about what might happen later in our day.  It’s a simple idea – but often, the most powerful concepts are the simplest.

The next day, in a cab from the airport, I found out how right this concept is.

The cab driver was a delightful 33y/o man who was married at age 19 and was working hard to support his wife and three young children.  He shared his concerns about his marriage and his recent layoff from his regular job as a FedEx driver.   He brightened up when he talked about taking his kids to the park in the summer and seemed sad that they had returned to school, since his nighttime work hours kept him from spending much time with them since school had started.  Near the end of the ride he asked what I did for work and I told him I was a physician.  That put a big smile on his face as he exclaimed, “I like doctors who smile the way you do.  You know, it makes you feel good when your doctor smiles.”

Our days at work are usually full and often there are many things we are worried about.  But by bringing ourselves into the current moment so we can welcome each patient with a smile, we make a powerful statement.  The simple act of smiling often creates the connection and begins to develop the rapport we need for our patient to trust us and partner with us.  And that will make both of us feel good.


Helane Fronek MD, FACP, FACPh

Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine

UC – San Diego School of Medicine

Certified Physician Development Coach


Learn more about Dr. Helane Fronek here

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Helane Fronek

Helane Fronek MD, FACP, FACPh initially trained in and practiced internal medicine and entered the field of phlebology, the treatment of venous disorders, in 1985. Since then, she has been an integral part of the development of this new medical specialty. As the Director of the Varicose Vein Clinic at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, she provided cutting edge treatment for the entire spectrum of superficial venous disorders and conducted research on venous leg ulceration, compression therapy, and emerging therapies for varicose veins. Dr. Fronek is a past president of the American College of Phlebology, the largest medical organization devoted to vein care. Dr. Fronek was the first recipient of the American College of Phlebology’s prestigious Leadership Award and was recently honored as its Honorary Member. Board-certified in both Internal Medicine and Phlebology, she is also Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC-San Diego School of Medicine. She writes regular columns on physician coaching for both Vein Magazine and San Diego Physician magazine and is passionate about helping her clients find greater enjoyment and balance in their lives.

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