No one wants to have to choose between a highly-skilled doctor and one who is kind, understanding and easy to talk to. However, some of the best physicians, while great analytical thinkers, are lacking in bedside manner.
Now those who train doctors are starting to put increased focus on the latter. They believe that, like the technical skills necessary to practice medicine, empathy is something that can be taught.
Of course, patients benefit when doctors are empathetic, or understanding of their situation and feelings. However, greater physician empathy has also been linked to better outcomes, fewer errors and medical malpractice actions and higher patient satisfaction scores.
The last of these is becoming a greater economic advantage to hospitals and other medical facilities. That's because under the Affordable Care Act, these scores are used in part to determine how much reimbursement they receive from the Medicare program.
There are a number of reasons why improved doctor-patient relationships can result in fewer malpractice actions. Obviously, physicians who take the time to listen to and communicate with their patients generally elicit more information about how they're feeling and make them aware of symptoms and complications they might not otherwise have known about. Further, people who like their doctors may be less inclined to take legal action if something goes wrong.
Finally, doctors who have good listening and communication skills are more likely to consult with and listen to others on a patient's medical team. This communication can often lead to better patient outcomes.
We may start to see the results of this increased focus on patient empathy in medical training in upcoming years as new doctors graduate and enter the health care system. It will be interesting to see if medical care improves as a result. However, no matter how much you like your doctor or a loved one's doctor, if you believe that he or she made an error that caused injury or worse, it's still essential to explore your legal options.
Source: American Resident Project, "Teaching Doctors Empathy," Arshya Vahabzadeh, accessed Oct. 15, 2015