Bedside Manners Matter: Empathy in Health Care

Written by Mike Verano

THE GREATEST MISTAKE IN THE TREATMENT OF DISEASES IS THAT THERE ARE PHYSICIANS FOR THE BODY AND PHYSICIANS FOR THE SOUL, ALTHOUGH THE TWO CANNOT BE SEPARATED.  –  PLATO

A 2015 article published in U.S. News and World Report had the following headline: “Why Nice Doctors Are Better Doctors: A good bedside manner could mean the difference between illness and health.” A 2017 article in Scientific American concurred, stating that “no longer are [doctors] judged solely on their technical competence—that is, their ability to perform medical procedures. Rather they may increasingly be judged on their interpersonal competence.”

As a psychotherapist trained in the arts of empathy, listening and unconditional positive regard, and a cancer survivor who has logged a lot of time as a patient, I would like to add a professional “Amen!”

After clearing the hurdles of discovery, diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radiation therapies, I considered penning a work entitled “Who Cares?” The book was going to be a summation of the things I heard and experienced while in hospitals and doctors’ offices that added to my anxiety. I decided against the effort for two reasons—the first being that my oncologist and his team, who were my primary caregivers in this experience, were professional, caring and sensitive to my needs. I didn’t want to be seen as ungrateful to them. The second reason is that I was not ready to relive all the interactions I had with other health providers where that was not the case. 

I know I’m not alone in the realization that health care sometimes misses the care portion. Far too often, one hears stories about patients who, in the midst of a critical health challenges had insults added to injuries by poor bedside manners. From the casual mindset of “we’re treating an illness, not a person,” to the full-blown depersonalization of becoming just another chart number, there are countless souls who did not need a study to prove that being cared about improves one’s health.

Certainly, many, if not most, health care professionals are dedicated individuals who work long hours under stressful work conditions in the service of healing others. However, as medicine becomes increasingly high tech, it runs the risk of becoming low touch. As technology advances, patients are done a disservice if, as reported by Massachusetts General Hospital, those behind the technology forget that “… the beneficial effects of a good patientclinician relationship on health care outcomes are of similar magnitude to many well-established medical treatments.”

While it’s a good sign that there is documented evidence of the healing properties of a whole person approach to health care, anyone who has entered a medical waiting room recently knows that’s not necessarily standard operating procedure. Additionally, many people are reluctant to speak up about their concerns for fear of being labeled as a “difficult patient,” while others have been conditioned to expect a detached and strictly professional demeanor.

Studies on the impact of empathy on recovery beg the question, “Does a medical professional need to be trained to understand that the first instrument in his or her medical bag is his or her attitude?” If the answer, if only for a minority, is “yes, they do,” then let’s make this practice as routine as hand-washing. 

The growing movement of patient rights and trends toward holistic models of treatment suggest that we are creating a more patient-centered model of medicine.  To take another step forward in the culture of caring, we need to add to the conventional wisdom of seeking a second opinion, the right to a third opinion. This all-important view is none other than the patient’s opinion of the level of understanding and empathy demonstrated by those who work in health care.

Imagine not having to choose between people’s technical skills and their compassion.  Imagine being able to keep one’s dignity after slipping into the inherently humiliating garment known as a hospital gown. Perhaps, one day, under the obligatory signs that remind health care workers to practice universal precautions while seeing a patient, there will be a line that reminds them to engage in the universally accepted practice of good manners. In that way, patients can not only stay safe from infections, but also avoid contact with toxic attitudes that, we now know, are contraindicated for good health. 

The Johns Hopkins Hospital patient bill of rights, after all begins with: “You have the right to receive considerate, respectful and compassionate care in a safe setting regardless of your age, gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disabilities.”

About the author

Mike Verano

Mike Verano is a licensed therapist, certified employee assistance professional and cancer survivor. Mike is a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc. and a certified instructor of critical incident stress management.