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Better Bedside Manners? What's It's Worth To You?

Posted Sep 25 2011 6:00am
How much are good bedside manners worth? Would you double your copay if you could be guaranteed an extra measure of TLC from your physician? Can we put price on a physician’s warm smile, an understanding nod or a reassuring hand on your shoulder? Do patients have to contract with a concierge medical practice to receive this treatment?

I agree that our bedside manners with patients need some rejuvenation. It’s not fair, however, to isolate this issue out of context. Physicians today are facing crunching pressures from various sources that we cannot always compartmentalize when we are facing our patients – even though we should. Most folks believe that the bedside manners of the prior generation of physicians were superior to ours. Were our predecessors simply more compassionate and caring human beings than we are? I don’t think so. I think the medical profession was a different beast then. I hypothesize that if these wizened physicians entered the profession today, that they would behave differently.

Context is so critical when examining any issue. Many physicians find today’s patients to be demanding and entitled. Again, before pronouncing a verdict here, there are reasons and explanations behind this that need to be aired. Patients and physicians are both different today because the culture and nature of the profession has changed. How would Marcus Welby behave if he weren’t making house calls with a black bag 40 years ago, but were now an employed physician in a large clinic who was sued every few years and whose medical ‘quality’ was monitored by bureaucrats who determined his reimbursement?

Again, I’m not excusing deficient bedside manners, but the issue has nuance and complexity.

A Chicago couple, Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum, believe that bedside manners are worth a lot. These philanthropists are donating $42 million to the University of Chicago which will create an institute under their names which will be devoted to teaching medical students good bedside manners. The hope is to ingrain values of compassion and empathy deeply enough into medical students that they will not be contaminated when they enter the medical arena later. The training would function like a suit of armor to protect young physicians from bedside manner decay and attack.

This is a fantastic initiative and I hope that other donors and medical institutions emulate the Chicago program. While medical schools do teach bedside manners and the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, it was undervalued, at least in my day. Younger physician readers can comment if times have changed.

Can you really teach compassion or do you have to be born with it? A Chicago couple has wagered in a big way that it’s nurture, not nature.
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