Medicine is changing quickly, but one thing has always been true: when doctors deliver compassionate, patient-focused care with excellent bedside manner, patients have better outcomes.
While medicine is evidence-based, complete patient care also involves skills that encourage trust, compliance, and a positive view of health in patients.
There is no universal method of teaching bedside manners. However, more medical schools are training doctors in skills that have been shown to improve patient interactions and outcomes. Below are some evidence-backed tips for improving bedside manner so you can provide the best patient care.
1. Listen attentively
Shorter appointments, longer work hours, understaffing, and compassion fatigue can all get in the way of a physician’s ability to pay close attention to each and every patient. However, both verbal and non-verbal cues can give tremendous insight into symptoms, state of mind, the likelihood of compliance, and any other issues the patient may be reluctant to ask about. Researchers found that it typically takes a doctor only 11 seconds to interrupt a patient, and patients who don’t have more to share only speak for around 6 seconds. That’s why it’s essential to listen to patients and avoid interruption.
A recent report that analyzed more than 8.4 million provider reviews revealed that a majority of patients cite good communication skills as a major factor in whether they perceive a medical interaction as positive. And while a doctor may be a skilled speaker and teacher, listening is often the forgotten part of the communication equation. Listening to a patient can also give a doctor insight into what matters most to them, enhancing the shared decision-making process.
2. Ensure the patient feels knowledgeable about their health and knows where to find more information
Making patients feel knowledgeable and empowered in their health journey is more complicated than ever. Having more access to information online regarding medical care can create misinformation and confusion for patients. Answering their questions and providing them with accurate patient resources is critical.
In a large survey of patient perceptions, researchers found that 55% of people ranked “a medical provider who explains the patient’s condition and treatment clearly” as the most crucial factor in their medical care. While physicians can’t debunk the entirety of a patient’s internet research in just a few moments, they can provide expert diagnostics and advice with compassion as well as direct patients towards sound and accessible medical information.
3. Accept that bedside manner was likely not part of your training
Bedside manner has long been at the center of nursing curricula, but only in the 21st century has it made its way into medical schools. Training now ranges from simple checklists that include advice like “always introduce yourself,” “avoid medical jargon,” to improv classes that teach doctors to respond optimally to the unexpected. The latter has been so successful in improving patient interactions that even established doctors have been encouraged to use them to update their training.
The key is knowing that bedside manner is not simply trying to be a nice person; it’s a set of specific skills tailored to medical encounters – and they’re skills that need to be honed with formal practice.
4. Learn more about specific displays of compassion and empathy
We all have the capacity to be compassionate and empathetic, but it’s easy for physicians to burn out and develop compassion fatigue. In addition, we’re constantly learning more about the role of the social determinants of health in creating better health outcomes. Soliciting this information can require new levels of competency from physicians to gain patients’ trust. It also requires physicians to occasionally step out of “diagnosis” mode and instead try harder to understand what it means to treat the person. in a holistic manner.
It’s helpful to remember that medical compassion and empathy aren’t simply ingrained, they’re learned – and approaches can even differ by medical context. Treating patients from different cultures can magnify this issue, making it all the more important for physicians to be aware of local patient populations and their specific needs.
It’s not enough to acknowledge that a physician’s attitude towards a patient is crucial. A study found that 56% of physicians did not feel they had time to be compassionate. As we’ve discussed, compassion and attitude are directly tied to patient outcomes, making it critical to implement in your everyday patient care.
5. Use the right language
The words physicians use can have a significant impact on meeting a patient’s needs (and discovering their unmet needs). For example, a study found that physicians who asked whether “anything” was wrong after addressing a patient’s initial complaint were far less likely to elicit new information and a complete picture than those who asked whether there was “something” else wrong. The latter question reduced the incidence of unmet medical needs in patients by 75%.
Even the smallest communication cues like this make a big difference, especially since 40% of U.S. patients bring more than one concern with them to a medical appointment. Framing questions with more compassion to build trust can elicit more information and result in better care.
6. Stay focused on the patient and keep the interaction about them
Self-disclosure, in which a physician reveals personal information during a medical encounter, is fraught with risk. We often think that sharing our experiences equates with empathy, but in reality, remaining impartial can help create healthy boundaries and avoid patient projection and transference.
Studies have found that primary care physicians talk about themselves to roughly 25 – 30% of patients and that these disclosures are not often effective in creating rapport or improving patient outcomes or satisfaction.
The best medical encounters keep the focus on the patient or involve very brief self-disclosures, at best.
Guidelines on bedside manner typically involve generic advice, such as “be respectful,” “make eye contact,” “don’t be judgmental,” etc. But many of those are basic rules of human interaction. Bedside manner and compassionate care is more than a checklist. Physicians are held to a higher standard because there’s more at stake when their conversations aren’t productive.
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