Open-ended questions. A warm and welcoming spirit. A compassionate approach. You might not realize that as you build an occupational therapy rapport with each of your clients, you’re engaging in the practice of client-centered care. The term describes a model that will already be quite familiar to most OTs since it reflects the way our profession already prioritizes patient wellness.

As described by the New England Journal of Medicine, a client-centered framework (CSF) emphasizes a collaborative care plan based on the patient’s goals for physical and emotional well-being. A client-centered approach requires the inclusion of the patient and family in care decisions and respect for their views, transparent communication, and a comfortable care setting. These five best practices can help you develop and enhance a client-centered perspective as an OT.

Make your patients feel heard

Did you know that taking time to truly learn about your clients’ lives and listen to their concerns can result in better health outcomes? While all providers face schedule challenges, spend several minutes in a one-to-one conversation with your clients whenever possible. If they are like most patients, they’ve probably seen at least one health care provider who made them feel dismissed or ignored.

You have an ideal opportunity to truly connect by asking questions about their work, their families, their hobbies, and their lives, as well as their injuries. These open conversations build trust and help you gather the information you need to build a client-centered care plan. Talk to your client about goals for treatment. While one person may want to be able to walk comfortably on vacation in a few months, someone else’s biggest priority may be to do independent activities like grocery shopping with less pain. Understanding these objectives will help you better serve both pediatric and adult occupational therapy clients.

Engage their family

Working with the client’s family can provide further insight into treatment priorities and needs, particularly for pediatric patients. When young clients can’t express their own goals for health and wellness, talk to their caregivers about what would make the child’s life easier and support family comfort and bonding. Consider opening with the question, “What activity do you wish you could do with your child?”

Family engagement remains important throughout the lifespan, but especially for older adults. When spouses, grown children, and other family members participate in the client’s care plan and support efforts to reach treatment goals, their encouragement can facilitate progress and help the client achieve the desired occupational therapy outcomes. Having a trusted family member at therapy sessions also provides the patient with a second set of eyes and ears to improve their ability to understand and follow through with the treatment regimen.

Build rapport

Now that you’ve spent time getting to know your clients and families, you can use that knowledge to develop a trusting, therapeutic relationship. For example, you can incorporate your patient’s favorite activities and interests into your treatment plan. Even if you only see the person every few weeks, remembering and noting preferences allows you to develop a strong rapport.

While it can be more challenging to build rapport with nonverbal patients, you can take a creative, proactive approach by providing several different activities and letting the person guide your sessions. You should also talk with the patient, as the personal interaction provides benefit even when they cannot necessarily respond verbally.

You can also share details about your own life and challenges with your clients as long as you relate these small anecdotes back to their experiences. While this strategy fosters a strong rapport, make sure you build a connection without getting too personal as a clinician.

Stay open-minded

In addition to these attributes of an OT, cultural sensitivity is a critical aspect of client-centered care. As a therapist, remember that your clients have varying beliefs, ideas, lifestyles, and preferences based on factors such as culture, race, religion, and ethnic background. Talking to your clients openly as discussed in the earlier steps will help you understand how culture shapes each person’s experience and informs a client-centered care plan.

For example, older adults in some cultures primarily prefer to “age in place,” remaining in their own homes and living alone or with their spouse or partner for as long as they possibly can. Other cultures see retirement as a time when elder family members can relax, and their children and grandchildren have responsibility for their care. Rather than generalizing about preferences based on a client’s background, ask the person about their own priorities and beliefs.

External resources can help providers address their own biases to provide better patient care. For example, the American Medical Association has published a toolkit for practitioners called Racial and Health Equity: Concrete Steps for Smaller Practices.

Keep an open digital door

Most patients prefer to manage health care scheduling, paperwork, and billing online, so offering these features can strengthen their relationship with your practice and highlight your commitment to client care. Consider putting out a digital doormat for your clients with text message check-ins and reminders, online scheduling functionality, and a full-service payment portal. According to the journal Patient Engagement HIT, giving clients access to their electronic health records can even improve care outcomes.

The NEJM study reports that adopting a patient-centered approach can improve satisfaction scores among patients and families, enhance employee productivity and morale, and build a strong reputation for quality outcomes. By creating a continuum of care, your practice can operate more efficiently with reduced expenses and higher profit margins.

As we celebrate Occupational Therapy Month this April, we honor all the dedicated therapists who strive to build client-centered relationships that support the best possible health and wellness outcomes. These five strategies can help ensure you maintain a strong rapport with the patients you see at your practice each day.

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