Exactly how important is good bedside manner? It’s actually pretty essential in ways that you might find surprising.
For so long, this aspect of healthcare has been dismissed as insignificant even by and amongst the most senior professionals and for a seemingly understandable – though not necessarily acceptable or justifiable – reason: for so long, it has been thought that compassion is not a skill that can be taught. Quoting a senior consultant, a New York Times medical columnist writes a clearly widespread belief about empathy: “You either have it or you don’t.”
Unlike most things involved in patient care, being empathetic is not something you can learn by memorizing cues or checking off lists or deduce based on scientific reasoning. A course on medical ethics and etiquette is one thing, but to show empathy can be challenging on multiple fronts.
In recent years, however, the issue of bedside manners has become a topic of discussion in both the professional and academic arenas for the rising evidence of how bedside manner actually affects patient engagement and how it impacts patient health as well as patient satisfaction.
An online survey from 2013 showed that there are more complaints lodged against poor bedside manners and services than there are against poor skills. Another informal one, conducted by a doctor on Twitter as part of his pre-talk research, earned a response from 200 responders listing empathy as the most important criteria that makes a good doctor. The other categories on the list were, unsurprisingly, mostly dominated by criteria like being a good listener, being caring and kind, and even being humble.
Improving Bedside Manner: The Challenges
While the impact of good bedside manner has been more established, breaking past the barriers of the difficulties it faces have yet to materialize:
- Personal background. Not everyone is born with a knack for connecting with people. Some people are simply better equipped in relating with other people and empathy, making it difficult to expect a standardized and objective way of dealing with patients.
- Challenges in formalized training. Until much recently, bedside manners were not exactly a topic of discussion nor a subject of formal education in healthcare. Medical care is technical, scientific, rigid even. However, big changes are happening and more and more medical schools are recognizing the teachability of empathy and adapting clinical empathy as part of the formative training of doctors and nurses as well as for the empathy learning of professionals.
- Stressful environment. It goes without saying that the healthcare industry is one of the most stressful work environments. Medical professionals are always outnumbered and overworked. The pace is always urgent and these professionals are almost always left with little time to rest or even engage lengthily with their patients.
- Challenging patients. Patients, due to their own personal backgrounds or the stress that comes from having to deal with an illness, or both, also pose a unique challenge to maintaining proper patient care etiquette.
Improving Bedside Manners: Tips
Patients should not have to choose between a skilled, competitive medical professional and a kind, compassionate one. While there are other, more structured trainings for the improvement of bedside manners, these simple things are well worth a start:
- Always start by introducing yourself by name. Letting your patients know your name is more welcoming and encouraging, making it easier for patients to open up about their conditions.
- Use plain language that your patients can understand. Medical jargon is intimidating. Simplify your language as best as you can to avoid terrifying your patients.
- Maintain eye contact and be on the same level as your patient. It may be more challenging to establish rapport with your patient when they have to look up at you.
- Explain your role in the care of your patients. You can more easily earn your patients’ confidence when they know what you can do for them.
- Be mindful of your tone. More often than not, how we say things has more impact than what we are saying, so keep your tone kind, friendly, and accommodating but appropriate.
- Take time to listen to your patients. This is where you can find the value of asking more open-ended questions than basic, quantifiable ones that are answerable by yes or no. Open-ended questions encourage your patients to open up to you and explain their symptoms in their own terms.
- Be patient and understand that your patients will not always understand procedures, medicines, etc. Take time to explain things to your patients anyway, because they will be more responsive to treatments when they have a better understanding of their situation.
- Always look the part of a reliable medical professional. It goes without saying that practicing proper bedside manner includes looking the part of a professional and a reliable medical care provider. For instance, despite long-held beliefs that white coats cause unnecessary fear in some patients, studies have maintained that more patients attach images of professionalism to the white coat.
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